April 24, 2018
Acts of the Apostles
General Remarks on the Acts of the Apostles
The four Gospels give vivd accounts of what our Lord endured for our sake. It was much more than just the cross. He endured the self humbling of becoming and living as a human being, with all the natural sorrows of life. Added to that was a life of rejection and opposition from the people and their official leaders, and, even the misunderstanding and obstinacy of those closest to Him. He did not live a life of perpetual glee filled with happy “worship experiences.” His prayers were not about getting success in life or getting His miracle from God. He was a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”
He even endured death on the cross for our sake. “He was wounded for our transgressions,” and “by his stripes we are healed.” He is “the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world.” His blood was shed for the remission of sins. But death could not hold Him. He rose again. “Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name” (Lk. 24:46, 47). He commissioned the Apostles to proclaim the message of forgiveness, and to call the forgiven into a new kind of life, called eternal life, and a new kind of fellowship, called the Church and the Body of Christ.
The book of Acts records the advent and growth of His Church. The Old Covenant with Israel has been fulfilled, and the New Covenant in His blood extends the calling and grace of God beyond the borders and people of Israel into the Gentile lands and unto the Gentile people. Thus, we could say Acts is the sequel to Luke which shows the results of the events and teaching recorded in the Gospels, not just in Luke, but in all the Gospels, “all that Jesus began both to do and to teach, until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen.”
It is these “apostles whom he had chosen” who carry the Good News of Christ to the world, which explains why the book we are about to study has, from ancient times, been called The Acts of the Apostles We understand, of course, that the spread of the Gospel and the establishment of the Church is not the result of the Apostles’ efforts. It was the risen Christ working through them in the person of the Holy Spirit, that enabled the Apostles to reach people with the message of Christ and bring them into the Faith and the Church. Thus, many have suggested the book should be more accurately called the Acts of the Holy Spirit. In a very obvious way, that is true. It is also true that it is the Acts of the Apostles, who, in obedience to God, and in the power of the Spirit, do what Christ called and commanded them to do.
Theirs was no life of ease. They suffered hardship, depravation, and death. So did many of the people who became Christians. The first three hundred years of the New Testament Church were times of persecution and suffering. We could say the history of those centuries was written in the blood of the martyrs. But it was written, and Acts records the early decades of it.
Luke, the human author of the book, was a friend, student, and fellow worker in the Gospel with the Apostle Paul (Col. 4:14, Philemon 24). He was with Paul in many of the events he records, which is shown by what many Bible students have called the “we sections.” Acts 28 is such a section, for Luke says in verse 11, “after three months we departed,” and, in verse 14, “we found brethren” and “we went toward Rome.” “We,” means Paul and Luke, and sometimes, others with them. Luke was with Paul, seeing and sharing the hardships and events he recorded in these sections of the book. Thus, like the Gospels, Acts presents an eyewitness account of the events.
Paul’s real name is Saul. He is from Tarsus, a notable city near the northeastern shore of the Mediterranean, in an area we know today as Turkey. Much of his ministry will be done in this area, and many of his letters, which will become treasured Scriptures of the New Testament Church, are written to churches in the cities of that area. Apparently from a prosperous Jewish family, young Saul studies in Jerusalem with the famous Rabbi Gamaliel. He excels in school and in zeal for the Pharisaic way of life, and becomes an avid and feared persecutor of the Church. Traveling to Damascus to capture more Christians for execution in Jerusalem, he is stopped in his tracks by the Lord Jesus Christ and wondrously converted. He becomes as devoted to Christ as he was to Pharisaism, and becomes a traveling preacher, planting and aiding churches from Jerusalem to Rome, and, possibly as far west as Spain. Luke is converted under Paul’s ministry, and gives up medicine to become a companion and fellow evangelist with Paul.
Luke 1:3 and Acts 1:1 show both books are addressed to a man with the Greek name, Theophilus. The man is unknown to us, but his name means “lover of God.” Perhaps he is a Roman official and Luke has written to show him the Christian faith is not an enemy of Rome. Maybe he is a well respected Christian in Asia or Macedonia, whom Luke and Paul met or converted in their travels. Some commentators suggest the name is symbolic, or a generic way of addressing all Christians who read Luke and Acts. While we hope all who read the Bible are, or will become, lovers of God, the idea that Theophilus is a real person whom Luke and Paul are trying to instruct in the faith seems to make much sense.
Acts closes with Paul in Rome under house arrest. We remember that he appeals to Caesar in Acts 25:11, and endures an arduous journey to Rome, during which he is shipwrecked on the island of Milita (28:1). After reaching Rome, Paul “dwelt two whole years in his own hired house” receiving those that came unto him and preaching the kingdom of God (Acts 28:30, 31). During this time, Rome is not hostile to Christianity, and the Church seems to flourish there. This is not due to any benevolence or piety on the part of the Roman rulers. It is due to the fact that the Empire includes people of many nations, cultures, and religions, which Rome is willing to tolerate, as long as the people are willing to accept Roman rule. Christians are willing to accept Roman rule. In fact, life in Rome is actually better for them than in Israel or Asia, where the Jews constantly harass and persecute Christians, and stir up the authorities against them.
Things change dramatically around 64 A.D. when Nero blames Christians for burning Rome. Antipathy toward Christians has been slowly growing because Christians do not participate in the pagan ceremonies of the official Roman festivals, and because Romans are beginning to fear the Christian teaching of the equality of all people will cause slaves to rebel against their masters and women to desert their families. So when Nero needs a scapegoat to take the blame for his negligence and inefficiency as emperor, it is easy for him to fan the embers of dislike into a raging fire of hate. By the year 65, Peter calls Rome “Babylon” meaning an enemy of God’s people (1 Pet. 5:13). John does the same in Revelation 17:5 and 18:2. In 65 or 66, Peter is executed in Rome. Paul is executed there in the fall or winter of 68-69. At some point during this time, John is exiled to Patmos, where he writes the book of Revelation. Antipas is slain, and John is urging Christians to be faithful unto death (Rev. 2:10). The centuries of Roman persecution have begun.
Since the city of Rome does not oppose Paul’s ministry at the time Luke writes Acts, we may conclude he is writing before A.D. 63. Paul was actually under Arrest in Rome twice. The first time around the years 61-62, is after his appeal to Caesar during which he lives in the rented house and preaches without opposition. He is released by the Romans, and continues to preach the Gospel. Some believe he is able to accomplish his hope of taking the Gospel to Spain. Others believe he returns to his homeland and continues to build new churches and instruct the established ones.
His second Roman arrest happens around the year 67 or 68. This time he is not under house arrest; he is in the wretched dungeons of the Mammertine prison, from which he writes the book of Second Timothy. He is executed there by the Romans during the winter of 68-69. These facts lead most Bible students to conclude Acts was written from Rome in Paul’s first imprisonment during the years 61 and 62 A.D.
Acts 1:3 reminds us that our Lord spent forty days with the disciples after His resurrection, “speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” Luke’s Gospel does not record many events of these days, which include at least one trip to Galilee and a return to the vicinity of Jerusalem. Thankfully, some of these events are recorded in other Gospels, especially John. In Acts, Luke reiterates the command to wait in Jerusalem for the baptism of the Holy Ghost (5) and the ascension (6-11). He also records the continuing prayers of the Church.
The Apostles’ question at the ascension indicates they still do not quite understand the Kingdom Jesus came to establish, and into which He is calling them. They are asking if Jesus is now ready to restore the kingdom to Israel, and they have in mind the same earthly kingdom they have wanted Him to establish from the day of His baptism. Except for a brief period (167-63 B.C.) the Jews have been under foreign domination since 586 B.C. It is natural that they want their freedom restored and a king of the house of David to be their leader. It is also natural that they expect the Messiah to accomplish this for them.
The Lord turns the disciples’ attention away from Israel (7). Whatever God plans for it is known only to the Father, and is not the disciples’ concern at this time. They are to return to Jerusalem to wait for the advent of the Holy Ghost, who will fill them with power to be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost part of the earth (8). Christ is giving them one more teaching about His Kingdom. It will be a kingdom of the Spirit without any of the normal barriers of worldly empires. It will consist of those who repent and believe the Gospel. Or, as Peter states it on Pentecost, those who repent and are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost (2:38). This is the Kingdom He came to establish, and this is the Gospel they are called to proclaim.
The ascension of Christ happens before their very eyes. It is as though He is lifted up bodily, and continues to rise until He disappears into a cloud. We must not picture a single cloud in an otherwise empty sky. Our Lord is raised up until He goes into the clouds, and it is implied that He continues to rise until He reaches the very throne of Heaven. This is done for the benefit of the Apostles. He could have instantly left earth and appeared in Heaven, but He wanted the Apostles to see Him leave. He wanted them to see His physical body, which they had seen and touched, actually rise into the sky in a way they would understand as returning to the Father in Heaven.
No wonder the Apostles are still looking to the sky when the two “men” in white apparel appear beside them. Are these the same angels who showed the empty tomb? If so, they now have a different message. At the tomb, their message was, “He is risen.” Here their message is, He “shall come again in like manner” (11).
Like manner surely means He will return in the flesh as He left in the flesh. His return will be a literal, bodily return, not just a feeling that He is with us in spirit, or still living in our hearts, as people often say of deceased loved ones. He will return in like manner.
He will come again to complete the great work of salvation. He will come to gather His people and take them home. He will come to end the current reign of wickedness and corruption that has such control of the earth and its people. He will come again to restore justice and righteousness to the earth, not just for the Jews, but for all who are His by faith in His blood. He will come again to end the curse forever. In that Day, thorns will not grow. Bodies will not age. Sickness will be unknown. Death will be dead forever. But, like His plans for Israel, the time of His coming is known only to the Father. Thus, the Apostles are not to preach time or date. They are to proclaim forgiveness and life in His name, and the hope of His return.
Returned now to the upper room in Jerusalem, they continue with one accord in prayer and supplication (14). We note in verse 14 that Mary the mother of Jesus, “with his brethren” are there. These, who once thought Him beside Himself, and sought to take Him back to Nazareth and end His ministry, are now part of the company of true believers. They have become followers and learners of Him.
The eleven once were disciples, too, but now they are Apostles, charged with proclaiming the Gospel and establishing the New Testament Church. Peter, even now being led by the Holy Spirit, declares that a man must be found to take the place of Judas, who betrayed Christ, and now is dead (15-26). The man must have been a witness of the ministry of Christ from His baptism to His ascension, and he must be a believer in the teachings of Christ. His selection is not left to the whims of people. Rather, God Himself shows who he is, “and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles” (26).
Most people do not see the miracles in Acts 2. They do not see them because they are focused on the sign, just as most people in Christ’s time missed the miracle of the Incarnation because their attention was focused on the signs of healings and exorcisms. The tongues of Pentecost are the sign, not the miracle.
To understand this we must return to Acts 1:8, which explains the coming and mission of the Holy Ghost. Christ names two things that will happen. on that day. First, the disciples will receive power to accomplish the work to which Christ has called them. Second, they will be His witnesses, starting in Jerusalem and going to the uttermost part of the earth. It is a daunting task. Everything the Bible says about the Messiah and His Kingdom is being placed into their charge. He will build His Church through their work. He will save souls through their preaching. He will change lives and change the world through their labours. Satan’s hold on people will be broken. Corruption and injustice will be revealed and rebuked. Old ideas of privilege and power will be challenged with new ideas of equality and justice under God. Sin’s will be forgiven, and people will become new creatures in Christ. The futile hope that happiness can be found in the indulgence of our passions will be replaced with the peace of God which the world cannot give, and the confidence of eternity in Paradise with God.
If these men are able to think at this time, and who could blame them if, in the presence of the risen Christ, their minds are overcome with awe, they must be thinking something like what Paul expresses in 2 Corinthians 2:16, “who is sufficient for these things?” How can we, mere sinful men, accomplish this great thing? The answer is, “Ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you.” The power comes from God, and on Pentecost, the Holy Ghost comes upon them. That is the only way they will be able to fulfill their calling.
The transformation of the apostles and disciples is the first miracle of Acts 2, and what a miracle it is. These men fled from Gethsemane, denied Christ, and cowered in the upper room. Now they boldly and fearlessly come into the streets, possibly even to the very gates of the Temple, in the city where Christ was crucified fifty days ago, preaching Christ. This transformation is one of the most important miracles in Acts 2. We should also note that they now understand Christ and His purpose. They never again speak of a political Israel as the Messianic hope. They believe in Christ as He is, not as they wanted Him to be. They understand that His Kingdom consists of people who believe in Him as Lord and Saviour, and are united together in the bonds of His love and His will. They are part of a body that crosses all human boundaries and barriers to bring people into God.
The second miracle is the actual founding of the New Testament Church. In the advent of the Spirit, the Old Testament Covenant with Israel is fulfilled, and the New Covenant in Christ’s blood is established. It is no longer necessary to become Jewish, offer sacrifices, keep the feasts and travel to Jerusalem for the holy days. Those things are passed away. They have served their purpose, and people now come to God through faith in Christ alone. It is difficult to state the importance of this change. The old things, such as the Temple sacrifices, looked forward to the work of the Messiah. Now that He has come and accomplished what they looked forward to, they are no longer needed. Like John the Baptist, their work is done. The Old Testament Israel must decrease; the New Testament Israel must increase.
We should note that, in one way, the Old Israel does not pass away; it expands. It moves out of the limits of the Temple system and the national identity of Israel, into the recognition of the one sacrifice once offered, and the spiritual identity of the Church. The old forms of Temple and sacrifice have passed, but the identity of God’s people is expanded to include all who receive the Messiah, whether Jew or Gentile.
The third miracle of Acts 2 is that people are supernaturally enabled to hear the Gospel. The tongues are not unknown languages or the result of an ecstatic experience. given to the Apostles and disciples. They are the supernatural power of God to preach the Gospel to the people in Jerusalem, in their own languages. And this confirms that the Church will be able to preach the Gospel to all nations.
The fourth miracle is the coming of the Holy Spirt of God to dwell in His Church and fill it with His glory. This is an event similar to, but far more glorious than when God filled the Tabernacle in the wilderness or the Temple in Jerusalem. In Exodus 40:34, 35, a cloud covers the tent, and the glory of the Lord fills the Tabernacle such that even Moses is unable to enter. In 1 Kings 8:10 and 11, as the completed Temple is dedicated to God, the cloud fills the Temple, and the glory of the Lord fills it, such that even the priests cannot enter, and the building is now called, “the house of the Lord.” The cloven flame and the tongues of Acts are like the cloud of the glory of God descending upon and filling the Tabernacle and Temple. But now His glory fills not mere buildings made by human hands, He fills His Church. Thus, the Apostle Paul can write, “ye are the temple of God” (1 Cor. 3:16). You, “fitly framed groweth together unto a holy temple in the Lord: in whom ye are also builded together for a habitation of God through the Spirit” (Eph. 2:21, 22).
The fifth miracle of Pentecost is the sign that the end time has arrived. Peter quotes Joel 2, saying, “It shall come to pass in the last of days, saith God, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (17). We should note that Peter is not saying all will or should speak in tongues. Of the three thousand saved that day, there is no record that any of them speak in tongues. Nor are they told to. Peter says they are to repent, and be baptized in the name of Christ for the remission of sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. He does not say, repent, be baptized, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues. Upon their repentance and baptism, they do receive the Holy Spirit because they are received into the people in whom the Spirit dwells, but they do not speak in tongues.
Here, then, is the meaning of the sign of the tongues. First, the glory and presence of the Lord now dwells in His Church rather than the Temple. Second, the power of the Holy Spirit enables the Church to accomplish its mission. Third the world has entered into the last days: not the last in number, but the last age before the end. This is the final era before the Lord returns.
Verse 42 shows how the converts live in this new and final era. They continue in the Apostles’ doctrine, which the Apostles received from Christ, and which we now have in the New Testament. These new Christians want to learn more about their wonderful Saviour and His will for their lives. They live in that doctrine. It becomes the foundation of their ideas, values, and daily living.
They continue in fellowship. There is no such thing as a solitary Christian, or a Christian that is not in some way united to Him in the fellowship of His Church. The people in Jerusalem dwell and live in the fellowship of the Church as surely and intentionally as they continue in the Apostles’ doctrine.
They continue in the breaking of bread. In verse 46 breaking bread refers to sharing meals together as part of their fellowship and friendship. In verse 42, it is the Lord’s Supper.
And they continue in prayers. The prayers are the liturgical daily prayers of the Temple and synagogue. In its early days, the Church continues to attend these services as we see the Christians doing in verse 46, and Peter and John doing in Acts 3:1. These prayers would be supplemented by the Apostles teaching about the meaning of the Old Testament in its fulfillment in Christ.
In addition to the daily and Sabbath services of the Temple, the Jerusalem Church gathers each Lord’s Day in formal, Christian worship. The preaching of the Apostles’ doctrine, the Lord’s Supper, and formal, liturgical prayers are the central elements of the worship. Verse 47 would suggest that baptism is also an important part of the service, and, in this early era, the Apostles do many signs and wonders. A great fear (43) comes upon the people of Jerusalem because of the Church. Even the old enemies of Christ seem to be afraid to lift a hand against it during this time. And each day brings more people into the faith (47).
People sold all that they had and gave the money away, or brought it to the Apostles to supply the needs of the Church (45). This had the unhappy result of impoverishing the Christians, and Paul will send money from the Gentile churches to the congregations in Jerusalem because of their poverty. There is a sense in which the Church has now taken up residence in Jerusalem. We remember that many of the converts are from other places. Selling their property seems to indicate a desire to stay in Jerusalem and enjoy the teaching and fellowship they have there in a sort of urban commune similar to that of the desert sects like the Essenes. The Christians seem to enjoy their life together, and do not want to go into Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth. God allows this time of learning and peace. He seems to be strengthening the Church for a while, before sending it into the world. But He will send it.
The healing of the lame man (1-11) is irrefutable. Lame from birth, he regularly sits at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple begging alms, and is well known to the people of Jerusalem (10). Now they see him walking in the Temple, and even leaping to show that his lameness is completely cured (8-10). There is, therefore, no dispute or question about his lameness or his healing. The question is not is he really healed? It is how was he healed?
The man seems to embrace the Apostles, and his actions, and the chattering of the people around him, attract a large and curious crowd which runs to and gathers around the Apostles and the man. Peter has been given a large and willing congregation. Naturally he begins to preach Christ.
We cannot help noticing that the miracle is not the heart of his message. No where does he tell the people to have faith and be healed of physical illness, financial need, or personal problems. Instead Peter does what Christ commissioned the Apostles to do in Acts 1:8. He bears witness to Christ. He proclaims the message that has been entrusted to the Apostles, and which the Church has proclaimed for two millennia.
The first point of the sermon is the reality and identity of God. God is. Or, as He said to Moses, I AM. He is not an unknown God, one of many gods, or an impersonal cosmic force. He is the God revealed in the Old Testament; the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as the the people coming to the Temple would say several times in the liturgical prayers for which they have gathered. It is He who has healed the lame man, not the Apostles.
Second, Jesus Christ is God. Peter makes this point by calling Him the Son of God. It has been noted in many faithful commentaries that the word for Son also carries the meaning of Servant, and that Peter’s use of it here, inspired as he is by the Holy Spirit, recalls the Servant of God in Old Testament passages, such as Isaiah 53. The Servant in these passages is a Suffering Servant, who bears the wrath of God for the sins of His people. Jesus fulfills these passages through His suffering and death on the cross.
As already noted, the Servant of God is also the Son of God. Peter is not saying God somehow created the Son, or begat Him with a goddess or with Mary. Nor does he mean Jesus is a son of God as the Old Testament Jews and New Testament Christians are referred to as sons of God. Peter means that, in some way, that is beyond human comprehension, Jesus Christ is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who in some miraculous way was made flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus is God, and part of His role as the Servant was to go to the cross. But part of His glorification is His resurrection and ascension.
After His suffering, the Servant/Son is raised up and glorified by the Father. The Lord Jesus Christ was raised in the resurrection, and glorified by His ascension into Heaven (15). The Jews would recognise this in Peter’s words, and cannot fail to understand that Peter is identifying Jesus Christ of Nazareth as the Servant/Son of God.
Third, all have sinned. Peter goes beyond the habits of unGodliness that are such a regular part of human existence. He is not overlooking them, he simply wants to drive home the point by showing their guilt in the death of Christ. They killed Jesus. God sent His Servant/Son to them, and they killed Him. Many have noted the way Peter forces the people to see their guilt by showing the stark contrast between their actions and the acts of God. As one commentator states: “God glorified His Servant; the Jews betrayed Him (13). Pilate acquitted Him; the Jews denied Him (13). He was the Holy One and the Just, the Jews chose a murderer (14). The Jews killed Him; God raised Him from the dead” (E. M. Blaiklock The Acts of the Apostles, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, p. 63). We cannot miss the pointed way Peter includes all who hear his sermon in this sin: “ye delivered up, and denied him. (13). “Ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer… and killed the Prince of life” (14, 15). They are guilty of this crime even though they did it in ignorance (17).
Fourth, they are called to repent of sin and become followers of Christ (converted), “that your sins may be blotted out” (19). Peter gives a word picture of God holding a scroll that lists your crimes against Him. But the crimes have been blotted out. They are not just crossed out, and thus, still visible on the record. They are blotted out. Each crime completely covered in ink, and therefore, illegible, having the effect of clearing the record. But it is not ink that covers the sins. It is the blood of Christ the crucified. God will send Jesus Christ to those who truly repent. His blood will blot out their sins and He will dwell with them as their God.
Fifth, those who repent will be blessed when the “times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord” (19). These times of refreshing refer in part to the blessings of forgiveness and unity with God through the Spirit, which the Christians have now in this life. In another way, they are linked to the “times of restitution of all things” (21); that fearful day, when the impenitent will be cast away from God forever, and the believers will be given their eternal home in Paradise.
Verses 22-26 continue to pound these points into the minds of the people. This is what Moses wrote of regarding the Prophet like unto him (22). Those who hear that Prophet will be saved as the people in the desert were saved by the raised up serpent. Those who will not hear Him will perish (23). This is also what Samuel and all the other prophets wrote of (24).
The hearers of this sermon, are also the recipients of the law and the prophets. They are the children of the prophets and the covenant, of which Christ is the fulfillment. Therefore, “God, having raised up his Son Jesus Christ, sent him to bless you in turning away every one of you from his iniquities.” Peter is saying Christ came to save the Jews, and to bring to them the fulness of the promises of the Covenant with Abraham and his heirs (25, 26).
The priests and Sadducees are the people in charge of the Temple and its sacrifices. They are the rulers Peter refers to in 3:17. They also control a small army. In theory, the army exists to guard the Temple, where rich treasures of gold are kept, and where much money is given and stored. But it also used, or misused, to exercise control over the people. It is this army that arrests Christ in Gethsemane, arrests the Apostles in Acts 5:18, and arrests and beats the Apostles in 5:26 and 40. The captain of the Temple in verse 1 is the chief officer in this army.
Until this time, the Temple officials have allowed the Christians to gather in the Temple, and to have freedom to worship Christ in Jerusalem. This is partly because they fear violence from the people if the rulers try to stop them (4:21, 5:26). But, in chapter 4, the Temple leaders end their policy of toleration and adopt a policy of silencing Christians. In chapter 5 we will see the policy change from silencing to slaying Christians (5:33).
The Temple rulers arrive at the place where the lame man has been healed as Peter is preaching the sermon of Acts 3:12-26. The captain of the Temple is not the only guard, for when verse 3 says, “they laid hands on them” it refers to the armed guards arresting and holding the Apostles under the orders of the priests and Sadducees. They have no legal or moral authority to arrest the Apostles. They do it because they can. But their opposition does not stop the progress of the Gospel. Five thousand more “which heard the word believed” (4).
The next day, the Apostles are brought to the High Priest and his kindred for questioning (6, 7). These men are not kindred as in being of the same family. They are kindred as in being of the same kind. Today we might call them kindred spirits. But that term has a benevolent connotation, whereas these men are evil, and are united in their evil intent. Caiaphas is no longer High Priest (1), yet he is among those gathered in verse 6. It seems the office of High Priest is passed back and forth between a small collection of likeminded men who have the power to monopolise the position and control the decisions of the Sanhedrin. These men have, and keep, that power for themselves. Good and faithful priests like Zecharias (Lk. 1:5 and 6) would never be allowed to become part of their circle, let alone High Priest They use their power for their own benefit, not the glory of God or the good of the people. “When the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn” (Prov. 29:2).
The rulers ask in what power or name the Apostles have done this, referring primarily to healing the lame man, but probably also having reference to preaching in the Temple. Once again, Peter, filled with the Holy Ghost, speaks to them about the Lord Jesus Christ (8). Once again he boldly includes the elites in the sinful condition of all men, this time pointedly saying the man was healed in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth “whom ye crucified” (10). The elites murdered Christ, and their guilt is evident to all. They know it. The Apostles know it. All Jerusalem knows it. Most of all, God knows it.
Peter makes several references to the Old Testament, proving from the very Scriptures these men profess to believe, and which they are sworn to teach and obey, that Jesus is the Messiah. Instead of welcoming and worshiping Him, these Jewish leaders killed Him. Peter also shows the complete lostness of the religious leaders. Since there is no salvation outside of Christ (12), and since these men killed Him and oppose His Church, they are lost.
The leaders’ discussion of, and decision about, the Apostles reveals their knowledge of Christ. They know full well of whom the Apostles speak, and their guilt for His death. They know from the words and doctrines of the Apostles that “they had been with Jesus” (13). To call the Apostles unlearned and ignorant is to say they do not have the degrees or the stamp of approval of the official, elite schools, nor are they part of the select few who control the ideology and wealth of Israel. Like their Master, they are outsiders, and, therefore must not be allowed to preach in their Temple.
The leaders know they have only two choices regarding the Apostles and the Church. They must repent and welcome them as true Ambassadors of Christ and preachers of the truth of God; or they must oppose and silence them at all costs. They choose opposition (17, 18).
At first the opposition appears gentle enough. The Apostles are warned not to speak in the name of Christ again (18). But, considering that the leadership elites were able to have Christ crucified, the Apostles locked up, and have a small army of armed and merciless guards at their command, this warning is a threat to the safety and lives of all who profess Christ. This fact is fully recognised by the Apostles, who, for all they know, may be crucified this very day if they continue in Christ. Peter has already denied Christ once to save his own life. What will he do now? He and John are united in their answer: “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (19, 20).
The elites would have sought the immediate execution of the Apostles. but they feared retribution from the people (21). Since they are men of self-interest rather than men of principle, they merely threaten the Apostles, and wait for another opportunity. The details of their threats are not recorded, but we may not be wrong if we imagine warnings of torture and death as part of them. Completing their warning, they release the Apostles (23), who go to the Church and report “all that the chief priests and elders had said unto them” (23).
A devout prayer (24-30) asks primarily one thing, that the whole body of believers may have boldness to speak the word (29), and that signs and wonders may be done in the name of Jesus (30). Their prayer is wonderfully answered. The place they are in is shaken and they are filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with boldness (31).
We come now to one of the sadder parts of the early Church; the socialist mistake in which the Christians sell their property and give the money to the poor or to the Apostles to administer for the care of the Church and as alms for the poor (32-37). This is probably done in the expectation that Christ will return in the very near future, before the money runs out. Since the Lord tarries, the money does run out, and the Jerusalem Church is plunged into poverty. The Apostle Paul even collects offering from the Gentiles to send to Jerusalem to support them.
There is no evidence that this idea of having all things in common comes from the leadership of the Holy Ghost or the Apostles. Instead it seems to arise from a mistaken expectation of an immediate return of Christ. If He is indeed coming in a few days or weeks, there is no need to work, plant, harvest, or prepare for the future. Just pray and worship and attend the Apostles’ teaching. The Jerusalem Christians could find many places in Christ’s teaching that seem to support their view. Christ told the ruler to “sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me” (Lk. 18:22). In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord says, “take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink, or, Wherewith shall we be clothed?” and, “seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Mt. 6:31, 33). Taken out of context, such words could be made to appear to teach that all Christians must sell all and simply trust God to provide. And, of course, some are called to such a life, such as the Apostles, and Barnabas, who will become a traveling evangelist. But the normal Christian life consists of earning and using money to provide for our own needs, as Paul reminds the people in 1 Thessalonians 4:11 and 12 and 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12.
The sin of Ananias and Sapphira is lying to the Holy Ghost (3). Their property is theirs to do with as they wish. They may sell it, keep it, give some of it to the Church, or give all of it (4). Their lie is their attempt to make the Church think they have sold and given all, while they secretly “keep back part of the price” for themselves.
Realising that his lie is “not unto men, but unto God,” (4), Ananias is overcome with fear and falls over, dead (5). Sapphira is given a chance to tell the truth (8), but continues the lie. Thus, Peters’ words in verse 9 tell her she will share the fate of her husband. She dies there in the presence of the others, and is buried with her husband (10).
Many read this account and wonder why the Lord took such drastic measures against these two Christians, while the open enemies of the Church continue in their wealth and power, seemingly untouched by the wrath of God. While many have offered opinions on the subject, we can really only say that our Lord often chastens the Church in this world, and allows the wicked to continue in their sin under the delusion that they will never pay. But the day of reckoning is fast approaching, when the people of God will go to everlasting peace, and the wicked will go to everlasting torment. Until then, our task is to trust that God works all things together for our good (Rom. 8:28).
The Church continues to grow, which fills the Jerusalem elite with anger and jealousy (17). In verse 18 they are so concerned they put aside their fear of the people and have the Temple guards capture the Apostles and put them in the common prison.
The Apostles have to be wondering if this will lead to their own crucifixions, but they are miraculously released by the angel of the Lord, who opens the prison doors and leads them out (19), with orders to go back to the Temple and speak to the people “all the words of life” (20). The Apostles obey (21) and the priests are surprised to learn of their preaching in the Temple on the very next day (21-25).
The guards are sent to arrest them again, which they do, though they fear being stoned to death by the people (26). But the people do not rise up in violence, and the arrest is accomplished without injury to the guards.
The anger of the priests is clear in the Scriptural account of their inquisition of the Apostles. They accuse them of intending to “bring this man’s blood on us” (28). Of course the blood of Christ is on them, not through faith in Him as Lord, but through the guilt of causing His death through premeditated murder. Peter’s words emphasise this, saying, The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree (30). The “tree” refers to the cross, made of wood, but Peter’s point is that the religious leaders did, in fact, murder Jesus. They are guilty of His blood.
This is an opportunity for the elites. They can confess their sin and fall to their knees before God in prayer, repentance, and faith. They can join the Church in service to God. They can change the corruption of their mismanagement of the Temple. They can begin to work for truth and peace for the people of Israel and the glory of God. Instead, they further entrench themselves in their sin. Cut to their hearts (33) shows that they realise the truth of Peter’s words, but, instead of repenting, they agree to commit even more sin by murdering the Apostles. Gameliel counsels against this (34-39), and his words move the leadership to relent of their plans of murder, for a while. But they still hate the Apostles and the Church, and are determined to take some action against these men who so boldly tell them of their sin. So they have the Apostles beaten. We would call this flogging. It is brutal and bloody. It leaves scars on the back, and often leads to infection and death. They are returned to the presence of the arrogant rulers, who command them not to speak in the name of Jesus. The implication is that, if they continue to preach, they will be more severely flogged, and even crucified. With that message ringing in their ears, the Apostles are released (40).
The faith and courage of these men is astounding. Weak and hurting from the flogging, with no medicine to relive their pain, they rejoice that they are counted worthy to suffer shame for Christ (41) and they continue daily in the Temple and in every house, to teach and preach Jesus Christ (42). Seeing their faithfulness, perhaps some consideration of our own commitment to Christ would be in order.
Since the Christians have sold all and placed their money in a common treasury, they are all dependent on the Church for their food and necessities. Overseeing the dispersement of necessities is taking the Apostles away from their duties of prayer and preaching (2). There are also complaints in the Church that some people are not receiving their fair share (1). The solution is wisely found in appointing men to take oversight of the business. There are thousands of Christians in Jerusalem at this time, and it would be impossible for seven men to do all of this work alone. Their job, therefore, is not to personally disribute the money, but to supervise its distribution. That there may be no doubt about their justice and integrity, they are to be men of honest report and full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom (3). The men are appointed and set aside for this work (5, 6).
Verse 1 says the murmuring that led to this solution was from the Greeks against the Hebrews. In this case, the Grecians are Jewish Christians who lived outside of Israel prior to converting and settling in Jerusalem. The Hebrews are Christians from Israel. The Jews from Israel often considered themselves more faithful than those living in other countries. The foreigners often wore clothing patterned after the Gentiles’, and had manners and accents that seemed more Gentile than Jewish to the Hebrews. Even the Galileans were suspected of being somewhat careless about being Jewish by the people of Jerusalem. It is, therefore, not surprising that these two groups have some difficulty living up to the ideals of peace and unity in the fellowship of the Church or that the Jerusalem born Jews call others Grecians. If the concerns of the Grecians are not addressed, it is possible that they and the Hebrews could grow apart, and even divide the Church along the lines of their former worldly identities. This would be a terrible tragedy for the Church, and a terrible sin on the part of the people. Through the wisdom God gives to the Apostles, and the genuine desire of the Grecians and the Hebrews for peace and unity in the Church, an issue that could have been a major problem is wisely and peacefully settled. As a result of this, “the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.” We could wish that the Church had always acted so graciously.
Verse 8 moves us into the ministry of Stephen, which continues to his martyrdom at the end of chapter 7. He has obviously been paying very close attention to the teaching of the Apostles, and has even begun to preach the Gospel and work wonders and miracles. We should not be surprised at this. The Apostles surely must realise they cannot do all of the preaching, even in Jerusalem. And they certainly cannot do all of the work of taking the Gospel to all nations. Also, remembering that they walked with the Lord for forty days after His resurrection, we may be certain that He instructed them to choose men for special instruction, as He had chosen them. These men, would be educated and equipped to preach, and, eventually to become pastors of congregations, under the oversight of the Apostles. It is possible that, even at this early point of Church history, the Apostles are already calling and educating such men, and that the men selected are given some responsibility for shepherding parts of the Church.
Stephen seems to have benefited from Apostolic instruction and has received permission to preach. This brings him into conflict with the Jews in verse 9. They are not able to resist the wisdom or spirit by which Stephen speaks (10), so they make up charges, gather false witnesses, and bring Stephen to the council (12) which is the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jews. The council is controlled by the same corrupt men who control the Temple and the priests, so the verdict and punishment of Stephen is known before his trial is even scheduled. The charge is blasphemy against the Temple and the Law by saying Jesus of Nazareth will destroy the Temple and change the customs given by Moses (14).
They are correct about one thing. Stephen does preach that the Temple will be destroyed, and the customs given by Moses will be changed. The question is, are these words blasphemy, or truth from God?
The Gospels contain many references to the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple (Mt. 24:38). Without the Temple, the customs given by Moses will necessarily be suspended, for there will be no place to offer the sacrifices or conduct the Temple ceremonies. But Stephen’s words have a deeper meaning. He is saying the Temple is no longer needed. Its time has passed and its sacrifices and ceremonies are obsolete because they have all been fulfilled in the ministry and sacrifice of Christ Jesus. Thus, through the Church and the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the Kingdom of God is going to break out of its Jewish identity like new wine bursting old bottles (Mt. 9:15-17). It is going to penetrate foreign lands, Gentiles will be welcomed into it, and the Temple ceremonies and sacrifices will be replaced with worship of God through Christ, the true Lamb of God. Our Lord makes several references to this during His earthly life, and a desire to prevent this from happening, and ruining their privileged position, is one of the main reasons why the leaders of the Jews opposed Christ and persuaded Pilate to crucify Him.
Stephen’s defense, then, is not a denial of his words; it is proof of their truth. He defends the message, not himself. He summarises the history of Israel, emphasising two points. First, the Jews often resisted the prophets and the word of God in the Old Testament. Unlike faithful Abraham, the patriarchs sold Joseph into slavery (9). They opposed Moses in Egypt (27-29), and turned to idols in the wilderness (39-43). When God allowed Solomon to build the Temple, God made it clear that it is not able to contain Him (48, 49), and that the people who worshiped in it were often corrupt and disobedient, with a history of killing the prophets God sent to them (52). It should be noted that “Jesus” in verse 45 refers to Joshua, who led Israel into the Promised Land, as Jesus Christ leads His people into Heaven. Joshua is Hebrew for “saviour;” Jesus is a later version of the same name.
Second, Jesus is the prophet foretold by Moses (37), and they have killed him as their fathers killed the prophets before Him (52).
The reaction of the council resembles sharks in a feeding frenzy more than a court of the leaders of Israel in the Temple of God. A senseless and unthinking hate fills them (54). They gnash on Stephen with their teeth (54), run upon him with one accord (57), cast him out of the city and stone him to death (58). This is not justice, nor is it even a trial. It is a mob reacting in mob violence, which, by the way, only serves to prove the very point Stephen made in his defense. They “received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it” (53).
The contrast between their thoughtless hate and Stephen’s Godly love is as great as the contrast between their unbelief and Stephen’s faith. Stephen calls upon God, “saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.”
Chapter 8 introduces us to Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, whom Luke identifies by his given name, Saul. He is a young Pharisee. We will learn that he is from Tarsus on the northeastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, an area now belonging to modern Turkey, and to which he will return to conduct much of his Apostolic ministry. In chapter 8 he is a Pharisee in full agreement with the murder of Stephen (1).
The official Jewish leadership now moves ahead with its plan to persecute the Christians unto extinction. At this time, the vast majority of Christians live in Jerusalem and the surrounding villages, such as Bethany on the Mount of Olives. Since they are so open about their faith, they are well known in Jerusalem, and easy to gather into prisons for executions. Saul’s explosive rise to prominence in Pharisaism is chiefly accomplished through his zeal in persecuting the Church (3).
No one is safe from him. Needing no warrants, and finding no opposition from Pilate, who may be very happy to see Jews killing other Jews, breaking down doors, Saul and his guards forcibly and brutally take men, women and children to prison and death. It is a horrifying scene, aptly described in verse 3 as making “havock of the church.”
Naturally, the Christians leave Jerusalem as rapidly as possible. Verse 1 tells us “they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles.” But thousands of Christians cannot leave Jerusalem unnoticed, and we will see Saul following them and bringing them back to Jerusalem for execution. Yet, their faith is undiminished, for verse 4 tells us they “went every where preaching the word.”
Luke does not mean every Christian preaches sermons. In fact the Greek word in verse 4 refers to evangelising, not the formal act of preaching. Not all Christians are called to the ministry of preaching, nor is the ministry a thing to be entered into apart from the calling and authority of the Church, along with a time of preparation involving much study and prayer. The Apostles would be diligent about identifying and instructing such men. Thus we see Barnabas first giving the proceeds from his land sale to the Church in Acts 4:36, and later serving as a prophet/teacher in the Church of Antioch. Paul also gathers men to educate and ordain to the ministry, commissioning them to do the same with other men (2 Tim. 2:2). It is probable that groups, which had been congregations in Jerusalem, leave the city with their pastors and settle together in their new homes. These churches would continue to worship together, and proclaim the word openly and boldly, and with many signs and wonders. Though not every Christian preaches or works signs and wonders, all are witnesses, able and willing to tell others about Jesus Christ, and the events in Jerusalem.
Philip, is one of the seven (Acts 6:5). He will eventually settle in Caesarea, where he is visited by the Apostle Paul (Acts 21:8), the very man whose persecution caused him to leave Jerusalem. Luke calls him Philip the evangelist (21:8), which is his role in 8:5. It would be natural for the Apostles to see the faithfulness of the seven, and bring them into instruction intended to prepare them for ministry positions in the Church. Like Stephen, Philip is a powerful preacher, whose ministry is accompanied by signs and miracles (6, 7). He appears to go into Samaria alone.
Simon (9-24) is like the stony soil in the Parable of the Sower. He appears to believe in Christ (13), and continues with Philip, beholding the signs and miracles. But his conversion is not real, for the seed of the Gospel withers and dies within him. His desire is to gain the power to give the Holy Ghost, as the Apostles do in verse 17. He even offers money if they will give him this power, which he intends to use for personal profit. Does Simon repent? Verse 24 shows him asking the Apostles to pray for him, but does not show him actually praying himself. It has been the consensus of the Church that, sadly, Simon does not repent.
In verse 17 the Samaritans receive the Holy Ghost through the Apostolic laying on of hands. At Pentecost, Jewish converts received the Holy Ghost at baptism, which appears to happen on the day of their profession of faith. But in Samaria, water baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost are separated by enough time for Philip to send word to Jerusalem, and for the Apostles to send Peter and John to Samaria, a journey of about fifty miles, on foot each way. Thus, several days pass between the conversions and the gift of the Holy Ghost. Why the delay?
First, it seems God wants Peter to witness the Holy Ghost coming to the Samaritans, through the laying on of his hands. At this point, Peter still does not fully understand that the Old Covenant has been fulfilled, and, under the New Covenant, faith in Christ, rather than becoming Jewish, is what makes a person part of the Body and Church of Christ. In other words, Christianity expands out of Judaism rather than bringing Gentiles into Judaism. In Samaria Peter is shown that the Samaritans are fully Christians and fully accepted by God as part of His New Testament Church without having to become Jews.
Second, God wants the Samaritans to know they are part of the one Body and Church of Christ, and under the authority of the Apostles. They are not an independent Church, nor are they free to adopt their own forms of worship, theology, clergy, or polity. Receiving the Holy Ghost through the Apostolic hands confirms this to the Samaritan Church.
In our time, the presence of many denominations forces us to look for a spiritual, rather than organisational unity of the Universal Church. We, therefore, recognise that true believers are found in many denominations, not just one. But the separation into denominations is not the will of God, or the plan of God from the start. The Apostolic Church was one in spirit and one in organisation. This truth is clearly shown in the experience of the Samaritans and the Apostles.
Peter and John remain in Samaria, and at least part of their time is spent preaching the Gospel “in many villages of the Samaritans” (25). Eventually, they return to Jerusalem. Philip also leaves the city, for he is a missionary, not a pastor. When the Samaritan Church is sufficiently organised, and the converts either brought into the congregations which have fled from Jerusalem, or established with pastor/teachers of their own, Philip is called to go to the area known today as the Gaza Strip (26). There he meets a man of Ethiopia, who is returning to his home after having worshiped in Jerusalem. He does not seem to know Christ at this point, but the fact that he is reading Isaiah 53, which both Jews and Christians assert speaks of the Messiah, makes it appear that he at least heard of the Christian message while in Jerusalem.
Philip gets into the carriage with him and “began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus” (35). Here, as in 8:4, the word ‘preached” refers to personal evangelism rather than a formal sermon. It is something similar to what Christ did with the disciples on the Emmaus road (Lk. 24:27). The result of this teaching is the desire of the man to become a disciple of Christ. Therefore he asks to be baptized (36).
Philip’s answer is worthy of note. “If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest” (37). Christian faith is serious business. In Philip’s time, people are being killed for being Christians. The Ethiopian is becoming part of a highly dedicated body of believers which expects the same level of faith and commitment from him. Half-hearted faith is unacceptable. To be half in and half out is to actually be completely out. Is this man sure he intends to believe as Christians believe, and live as Christians live? If so, he may be baptized.
His answer is an unqualified yes. “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God” summarises the Christian faith and affirms his belief in it. To believe it is to act upon it, to make it the foundation of your life. All of this is affirmed by the Ethiopian in verse 37. On this profession, he is baptized.
There is no mention of needing a second baptism of the Holy Ghost, speaking in tongues, or any other miraculous events. The miracle is the salvation of a sinner; a new soul born into eternal life; a new life joined to the Body and Church of Christ. At this point in Acts, the Church is in a period of transition, during which God works signs and wonders, and the gift of the Holy Ghost is shown in some people by speaking in tongues. But this will end in the near future. The conversion of the Ethiopian will become the normal way adult converts are brought into the faith.
Philip is miraculously taken to Azotus, an ancient Philistine city in Gaza. From there he preaches in many cities, moving northward until he comes to Caesarea, north of the Sea of Galilee. There he appears to settle into the calling of a pastor, or, possibly, a diocesan bishop.
Saul, still breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord (1), is not satisfied with the havoc and death he has caused in Jerusalem. He determines to go to Damascus, where a number of Christians live, and bring them in chains to be killed in Jerusalem. The letters from the High Priest inform rabbis of the purpose of Saul’s mission, and command their assistance. Verse 7 indicates that men “journeyed with him.” They are probably a sizable company of Temple guards. It will be their job capture the Christians by force, possibly killing some in the process, and to march them to Jerusalem in chains. It is a sad and appalling prospect, but, this time, it doesn’t happen.
Near Damascus, a light from heaven appears to Saul (3). It is Jesus, the light of the world, for when Saul asks, “Who art thou, Lord?” the voice answers, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest” (5). The Church is the Body of Christ. Therefore, to persecute it is to persecute Christ. We may also say to cause dissension and division in the Church, preaching or allowing unBiblical doctrine and practice, and even the neglect of the Church by unnecessary absence and lack of support, is the same as doing these things to Christ Himself. We must remember this in these days of easy believism, showmanship churches, unscriptural teachings, and hyper-individualsim that often pass for Christianity today.
Apparently, Saul has been having doubts about the legitimacy of killing Christians, but has allowed his hate for them, and the opportunity to rise to the highest echelons of leadership and power in the Jewish religious system, to over rule the pricks of conscience. Thus, our Lord says, “it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks” (5). The word pictures a cow kicking against a cattle prod, which only causes more pain.
Saul now knows that Jesus of Nazareth, as preached by the Christians is really and truly the Messiah, and Saul is guilty of persecuting Him and murdering His people. Saul probably expects Christ to kill him and cast him into hell this very second. His fear is so intense he trembles uncontrollably, as he asks, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? (6). We may note that Saul’s use of the word “Lord” in verse 5 is merely the formal way of addressing a person to whom respect is due. But, in verse 6 it is the address of a humble man to Almighty God. “Arise,” says Jesus, “and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.” How significant that Saul had intended to enter Damascus in power and notoriety, to capture and bind people for slaughter in Jerusalem. But, after meeting Jesus, the haughty Pharisee enters the city blind, powerless, crushed with fear, and entirely dependent on the people he came to kill.
The Lord allows Saul to remain in this condition for three days, during which he neither eats nor drinks (9). What is he doing during this time? Verse 11 tells us, “behold, he prayeth.” This Doctor of the Law is probably going over the Scriptures in his mind, and comparing them to the teaching of the Church, which he has probably heard many times. He is probably re-living that horrible moment on the road, when he suddenly realised who Jesus is, and how guilty he has been in his merciless slaughter of the Lord’s people. He is probably still inwardly trembling, knowing that God, in His justice has every right to cast him into hell forever. He is probably confessing his sins and begging forgiveness. In his mind, he probably sees the faces of those he killed, sees their suffering, hears their dying cries, and knows he is responsible. He thinks he is surely the chief of sinners. How can he ever hope to be forgiven? Yet he has not been cast into hell, yet. Why? What does the future hold for him? What will God do with him? No wonder he can’t eat or drink. No wonder, “behold, he prayeth.”
But let us not look upon Saul as the Pharisee looked upon the publican, thanking God that we are not like this man. Let us remember that we, too, have sinned and come short of the glory of God, and that the wages of our own sin is death. Let us humbly pray unto God, “Lord, have mercy upon me, a sinner.”
Ananias bears the same name as the man who lied to the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem (Acts 5:1-5). Happily he has an entirely different spirit. He is probably a leader in the church in Damascus, and he receives a vision commanding him to go to Saul of Tarsus, who has been told he is coming to restore Saul’s sight (11, 12). Ananias reminds the Lord that Saul has done much evil to the Church in Jerusalem, and has come to Damascus to “bind all that call on thy name” (14). In other words, Ananias is afraid. But the Lord does not allow legitimate fear to interfere with obedience. He commands Ananias to “Go thy way for he [Saul] is a chosen vessel unto me.” He will bear God’s name to Gentiles, kings, and the Jews, and he himself will suffer great things for the sake of the name of the Lord (15, 16).
By the laying on of hands, Saul’s blindness is cured. He eats, and is soon baptized into the Church in Damascus. Saul is a Doctor of the Law, so he knows the Bible. Living in Jerusalem, he also knows the Gospel. He was part of the group that heard Stephen’s defense. He may have heard the preaching and teaching of the Apostles in the Temple, or been told about Christ by the Christians he has delivered to be killed. He also needed to know some Christian doctrine in order to identify Christians. He spends “certain days” with the disciples in Damascus, during which he hears their teaching and joins their prayers. When God has fully prepared him, Saul sets himself to his mission. He goes to the synagogues and begins to preach Christ (20). The Jews remain unconvinced, and the Jerusalem lust for Christian blood seems to be just as strong in Damascus. Therefore, they plot to kill Saul (23, 24). They are so intent on his death that they have the gates of the city watched day and night to prevent him from leaving without their knowledge. Meanwhile, we may be assured, they are searching for him in the city, and ready to have his own guards arrest him if he dares to attend a service of a synagogue.
The Christians, knowing these things, lower Saul in a basket from some part of the city wall. This is the first of many times Saul’s life will be endangered by his service to God. It is a significant moment. Saul the unbeliever has become Saul the preacher of Christ. Saul the persecutor, has become Saul the persecuted.
Saul now returns to Jerusalem, where he attempts to join himself to the disciples (26-29. In our modern language, we would say he is attempting to join the Church of Jerusalem. This man will become a missionary, preaching Christ in Asia and Europe. Where ever he goes, he will form the converts into churches. Whenever a person professes faith in Christ, he will be added to the Church and expected to be an active and faithful member of the body. Of course there are times when circumstances prevent active attendance and participation, but the normal course of life for the Christian includes membership and participation in the Church. Thus, Saul unites with the church in Damascus, and when he returns to Jerusalem, he attempts to unite with the Church in that city.
His attempt is obstructed by the fear of the Christians. Like Ananias in Damascus, they know Saul has been a persecutor of the Church. Many of the believers are probably friends and relatives of people tortured and murdered by Saul. It would be hard for them to trust him, and harder still to forgive him.
It is Barnabas, who is first able to overcome his fear and distrust of Saul by trusting in the Lord. He seems to seek Saul, and to listen to the testimony of his experience on the road, and in the city of Damascus. Convinced that Saul is in earnest, he takes him to the Apostles, and tells them what Saul has told him. In verse 28 we see Saul accepted and a vital part of the Jerusalem Church. He is, “with them” in the truest and fullest sense of the word.
In addition to his attendance at the services of the Church, Saul speaks “boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus” (29). This does not refer to preaching in the Church. Saul is speaking to the Jews in the Temple and in other places in and around Jerusalem. He disputes with the Grecians (29), which are Jews who live outside of Israel, and are in Jerusalem to offer sacrifices, visit the Temple, or attend one of the many feasts or holy days. His words do not bring masses of converts into the Church. Instead, those hearing him plot to kill him (29). Some of the brethren of the Church, hoping to prevent his murder, take Saul to Caesarea, from which he seems to travel alone to his home town of Tarsus (30). The Lord graciously grants a time of rest to the churches of Judaea, Galilee, and Samaria. During this time, they are edified, walking in the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Ghost, and are multiplied in number (31).
Peter makes an Apostolic visit to all the churches in all quarters (32). This is a ministry tour, not a vacation. He goes to preach and teach the congregations, and to further instruct the pastors in the Scriptures and the order of the Lord’s Church in which they are elders and shepherds. In verse 32 he comes to the ancient city of Lod, which in Peter’s time is called Lydda, a little more than twenty miles north west of Jerusalem. His ministry there, which includes the miraculous healing of Aeneas (34), causes a great turning to the Lord in that city and the neighbouring town of Saron (34). Peter will spend some time here, teaching the new disciples and assimilating them into congregations. The man who wrote that “no prophecy of the scripture is of private interpretation” (2 Pet. 2:20) and that some things in Scripture are hard to understand, which the unstable wrest to their own destruction (2 Pet. 3:16). would not leave the new flock in ignorance.
We next read of Peter in Joppa, a coastal city a few miles north east of Lydda (36-43). According to verse 38, people in Joppa have heard about the healing of Aeneas and the many conversions in Lydda, so they send two men to ask Peter to come to their city, in which there is a small Church (41).
When he arrives in Joppa, he learns that one of the city’s beloved ladies has died. In life she was full of good works and alms. Her name is Tabitha (36), which means Dorcas, or, in English, Gazelle. She is a believer, and a member of the Church, and saints and widows are gathered around her house. Peter goes to her home, and kneels beside the bed on which her dead body lies. He prays. How long does he pray? What does he say to God? what does he request of God at this time? We do not know, but we have an example of what to do in the face of death. Peter prayed.
When the prayer is over, he turns to the body and says, “Tabitha, arise.” This is not a request of God. It is not a prayer. It is something Peter is told to say by the Holy Spirit, and the result is unique, even in this Apostolic time of signs and wonders. She opens her eyes, sits up, and goes with Peter to the window, where, when he had called the saints and widows, he presents her to them alive (42).
Because of this, many people of Joppa believe in the Lord. Peter remains in Joppa many days, during which we may be sure he continues to teach the things of Christ. He stays in the hospitable home of Simon the tanner, which opens a new chapter in Acts, and in the Church’s understanding of the scope of the grace of God.
It is highly likely that Cornelius and his house are the first Gentiles to believe in Christ in New Testament faith. The centurion in Luke 7 is certainly a believer, for he expects the disease to obey Christ as the soldiers obey him. Yet, he is an Old Testament believer. He believes Christ is the Messiah and, in some mysterious way, the Son of God, but does not yet know Him in the New Testament sense as the Saviour who dies for his sins. Even if some Gentiles have heard and believed the Gospel, the incident in the home of Cornelius is a milestone in the advance of the Gospel, for it is the first time Christ is intentionally proclaimed to a Gentile audience. It is significant that Paul will become the Apostle to the Gentiles, yet the first mission to Gentiles is done through Peter.
It takes the Apostles a while to understand the scope of God’s salvation, and the place of Gentiles in it. Their old idea of a Jewish state established and ruled by the Messiah has finally given way to an understanding of a spiritual Jerusalem, entered by faith in Christ, which goes beyond Israel to all nations. But the Apostles still seem to believe Gentiles coming into the spiritual Israel must also become Jews, and that the spiritual Israel remains essentially Jewish. The Lord is going to show them differently through the conversion of Cornelius and his house.
Cornelius is a Roman and a soldier who commands a company of one hundred soldiers. He is described as a devout man, and one that fears God (2). This means he is a Gentile who worships the God of Israel, but has not undergone the lengthy process of becoming a Jew. Therefore, he does not have all the privileges that belong to the Jewish people. For example, when attending the Temple services, he worships in the court of the Gentiles. He sees a vision (3-6) from an angel who tells him to send to Joppa for Simon Peter, who is staying at the house of Simon, a tanner. He is even told Simon’s house is by the sea side. It will be very easy to find. When the angel departs, Cornelius sends two house servants and a devout soldier to Joppa to invite Peter to their master’s house.
Meanwhile God is preparing Peter for this event, which will also be a turning point in his life (9-16). While in prayer he sees a vision of a large sheet coming down from Heaven. The corners are “knit,” meaning sewn together in a way that makes the sheet into something like a large bag. It contains animals that are forbidden foods under the Old Testament law. Yet, God tells Peter, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat” (13). Peter, knowing the law, and now devoutly following Christ, will not even touch the animals because doing so makes him unclean, and because it is disobedient to the Old Testament law. This happens three times (16), and each time the Lord says to Peter, “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.” God is saying that when He makes something clean and holy, neither Peter, nor any other person, should call it unclean.
Peter, of course, does not understand what God is saying (17), but we have the advantage of knowing the end of the story. Therefore, we know God is preparing Peter to go to the house of Gentiles, and preach the Gospel to them. Gentiles, by Old Testament law, are unclean. And, in Old Testament times, they usually were. Even the good ones usually worshiped idols instead of God. The bad ones were notorious for their sensual indulgence and contempt of God’s commandments. There were provisions for Gentiles to be brought into Israel, which would make them part of the Covenant people and heirs of the promises with the Jews. It is often hinted that bringing Gentiles into the Kingdom of God is part of Israel’s mission. Certainly this is clearly taught in visions of the fulfilled Kingdom in Isaiah 2:1-5 and Micah 4:1-5. But Peter has not been able to understand this yet. So God sends the vision of the sheet to him, telling him God can make the unclean clean.
While Peter ponders the vision, Cornelius’ men arrive at the house and ask for him (18). The Spirit tells him to “go with them, doubting nothing: for I have sent them” (20). It would be evident from their dress that the servants are Gentiles; and the soldier is very obviously Roman. They confirm this, identifying themselves as Gentiles and servants of a Roman (22) but hasten to add that Cornelius is a just and God fearing man, who was “warned by an angel to send for thee into his house, and to hear words of thee.” Peter’s next move is a bold step of obedience and faith. He invites the Gentiles into the house and gives them lodging over night. He is actually receiving and holding fellowship with Gentiles.
The next day, the Gentiles and Peter, along with “certain brethren from Joppa,” depart for Cornelius’ house, in Caesarea about forty miles north of Joppa. Since they are able to make the journey in one day, they probably travel by boat, for Caesarea is a costal city, also.
Cornelius can hardly believe God is actually bringing Peter to his house. He kneels at the feet of Peter (25). “Worship,” as used in verse 25, refers to special honour as might be given to the emperor. As a God fearer, Cornelius would never worship Peter as a god. Yet, Peter stops the demonstration of respect. “Stand up, I myself also am a man” (26).
Inside the house Peter finds many gathered (27), and as he begins to speak he reminds them that it is unlawful for a Jew to “keep company, or to come unto one of another nation.” It may seem at first that Peter is putting these Gentiles in their place. In reality, he is showing them that they are loved and accepted by God, and that the Saviour died for them as much as He died for Jews.
Cornelius tells Peter about his own vision to invite Peter to his house, and that the people are gathered there to “hear all things that are commanded thee of God” (30-33). The message of the sheet is beginning to make more sense to Peter now. To say God is no respecter of persons means His grace is for all who will receive it in Biblical faith, not just the Jews alone. For, “in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted of him” (35).
Verses 36-43 give the opening of Peter’s teaching, which reiterates Christ’s death and resurrection, and His commission to the Apostles to fulfill the prophets and preach “that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins” (43). It is impossible to overstate the importance of these words. They open the door of Heaven to “whosoever believeth,” not just the Jews, or the rich or the poor, or one race or another. Whosoever believeth shall receive remission of sins.
Remission essentially means forgiveness, and forgiveness means to be brought into all the blessings God has promised in the Bible. He will be your God, and you will be one of His people. He will dwell in you and you will dwell in Him. He will lead you in paths of righteousness, and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. He will be with you in this life, and take you into His Mansion of many mansions in the next, where you will live with Him in Paradise forever. All of this, and more, is said in those short words, “remission of sins.”
These blessing come to you as the free gift of God through Christ who suffered on the cross for your sins. He is the sinless God; the eternal One who was made flesh to die on a cross. He took your sins upon Himself and paid their price in your place. He offers full remission of sin to all who will accept it by faith.
Peter seems to have more to say, but while he is speaking, “the Holy Ghost fell upon all them which heard the word.” It is the Holy Ghost who enables sinners to trust in Christ as Saviour. It is the Holy Ghost who enables sinners to begin to live a Godly, righteous, and sober life to the glory of God the Father. It is the Holy Ghost who ensures that Peter, and the Gentiles to whom he speaks, understand that they have been received by God into His Kingdom, and their sins are fully and forever forgiven. He makes this plain by giving the Gentiles the gift of speaking in tongues as He gave to the Jews on Pentecost.
Peter is astonished. He probably is still thinking these Gentiles need to become Jews before they can be accepted by Christ and forgiven. But the presence of the Holy Spirit in them in the same way and the same fullness as He was given to the Jews at Pentecost, convinces him of the Gentiles’ full acceptance by God through faith alone. “[T]hey have the Holy Ghost as well as we” (47). “And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord” which seals them in Christ, and marks them as His own. Naturally these new Christians want Peter to stay longer for fellowship and their instruction. They pray him to “tarry certain days” (48). We may be certain Peter accepts their invitation, and that they are well instructed by the time he leaves.
The Apostles, and others in Jerusalem, hear about Cornelius, and when Peter returns to the city after his “pass throughout all quarters” (9:32), those who have the same questions about the Gentiles and Israel he had before Joppa, “contended with him.” Peter tells them about the vision of the sheet, the arrival of the men, and the command of God to go to the house of Cornelius. Peter refers to six brethren who accompanied him to Joppa (12). They appear to be with Peter in Jerusalem, and can verify the truth of his story.
The things God wants the entire Church to understand are stated by Peter in verses 16 and 17. First, John the Baptist told them the Lord will baptize with the Holy Ghost. Peter spent much time listening to John, and probably heard these words with his own ears. Second the Gentiles were baptized with the Holy Ghost just as the Jewish Christians were on Pentecost. Therefore, they are fully part of the Kingdom of God and have the right to water baptism and full church membership. Peter is stating the obvious fact that no one can be baptized with the Holy Ghost and not also be fully accepted into the Kingdom of God. Conversely, those who are fully accepted into the Kingdom of God are those who are baptized with the Holy Ghost. The two are inseparable. Each requires the other, and each proves the other. “What was I, that I could withstand God?” Peter asks in conclusion. And, of course the implication to those contending with him is, who are you to withstand God?
Peter’s words silence the assembly. They are allowed to see the truth, that remission of sins is truly for whosoever believeth in Christ, and that God has “also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” (18). It is a tremendous step for Jews, who wanted a warrior Messiah to destroy the Gentiles, to accept them as brothers and sisters in the New Israel without their becoming Jews. This transformation of the Jewish Christians’ thinking is as much a part of the miracle at Joppa as the conversion of the Gentiles. The Church is really beginning to understand what Jesus told them many, many times, that it is faith, not Judaism that makes people members of the Kingdom of God; and that “whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (Jn. 3:16).
We may wonder why the Roman authorities allow the persecution and murder of Christians. Why do they not protect the lives of innocent people? After all, the Romans do not care what religion, if any, a person professes, as long as he accepts Roman rule. The answer is given in verse 3, it pleases the Jews. It distracts the Jews from their obsessive hate of the Romans and diverts their attention to hating Christians. This distraction causes a relative peace in Israel. Or, at least the Jews are not fighting Romans. If this peace costs the lives of a couple thousand Christians, the Romans consider it well worth the price.
The persecution becomes much less intense after most of the Christians leave Jerusalem, and after Saul, who is a prime mover in the persecution, converts and moves to Tarsus. But, as the Church continues to grow, the threat to the power and wealth of the elites grows with it. This, of course, cannot be allowed, and the upper ranks of the religious leaders begin to grow uneasy again. We also know that false Messiahs continue to appear in and around Jerusalem, and Roman and Jewish leaders fear more uprisings and violence from them. What better way to put fear into their hearts than by crucifying a few more Christians for saying Jesus is the Messiah? So Herod “stretched forth his hand to vex certain of the church. And he killed James the brother of John with the sword. And because he saw it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also” (1-3).
Thus, verse 4 finds Peter wrongly imprisoned again, wondering if the soldiers will come to take him to the cross. A squad of soldiers is divided into four watches to keep the Christians from freeing Peter. It is Passover, which also means it is the time when Jesus was crucified, and Herod knows the Christians will commemorate His death on Easter Sunday. Therefore, in a cruel and calculating move, Herod decides to deliver Peter to the Jews after Easter, knowing they will want to crucify him in celebration of their crucifixion of Christ (4).
Peter is asleep, though chained to two guards, when the angel of the Lord comes upon him and smites him on the side. The angel clearly means business. The chains fall off Peter, who is ordered to tighten the belt around his waist, put on his sandals, and follow the angel. The angel takes Peter through the locked doors of the prison to the outer gate, which opens as they approach it. Suddenly, the angel leaves, and Peter realises he has been miraculously broken out of jail.
The house of Mary (12) is thought by many to contain the upper room where Christ celebrated Passover with His disciples. Her son is John Mark, later known primarily as Mark, the writer of the Gospel that bears his name. Peter knocks at the gate, but the servant girl, Rhoda, is so excited, she forgets to let him in before she runs to the others to tell them Peter is free. Though they have been praying for Peter (12) and had been praying for him without ceasing (5), they do not believe He is free. “Thou art mad,” they tell her (15).
Meanwhile, Peter continues knocking, and they are astonished to see him when they open the door (16). The James killed in verse 2, is the brother of John and the son of Zebedee. He is the Apostle James, and the first of the Apostles to die as a martyr. The James in verse 17 most likely refers to James the brother of the Lord. Clement of Alexandrian and early church historian, Eusebius record him as bishop of Jerusalem, having charge of the cities many congregations and elders so the Apostles can make more frequent and extended journeys outside of Jerusalem and Israel to preach and ensure the spiritual health of the rapidly growing Church. James is highly regarded by the Apostles. Paul calls James, Cephas (Peter) and John pillars of the church and says they gave him the right hand of fellowship (Gal 2:9).
The soldiers are put to death, probably in a very unpleasant way, for allowing the prisoner to escape, even though they could not have stopped it. Herod, of course, would not accept their story that an angel set him free, and soldiers who allowed prisoners to escape usually paid with their lives in those days. Herod continues to search for Peter, who now leaves Jerusalem for Caesarea the home of Cornelius (10:1).
Verses 20-23 record the death of Herod. Many, including physicians, have offered opinions on the cause of his death, but it remains a mystery to this day. The only thing we know is that his disease was an act of Divine retribution for allowing people to honour him as a god (21-23).
Yet God’s Church continues because “the word of God grew and multiplied” (24). Meanwhile, Barnabas and Saul who have also been in Jerusalem, probably due to Passover and Easter, leave the city with John Mark. They will go to Antioch, as we will see in the next chapter.
Saul has spent several years preaching to the Jews and learning about the Christian faith from the congregations in Damascus, Jerusalem, and Antioch. The Antioch Church is primarily comprised of new converts, rather than refugee Christians from Jerusalem, They were probably not present at Pentecost, but have become believers through the testimony of Christians leaving Jerusalem due to persecution. They are not Gentiles. As has already been seen in Acts 6:1, they are Jews who live outside of the borders of Israel, some of whom have adopted Greco-Roman modes of dress, and sometimes are not as conscientious about the Pharisaic rules as the people in Jerusalem think they should be. For this reason, they are viewed with suspicion by the Judeans who are often called “Jews” in the New Testament.
When the Apostles learn that many in Antioch have become believers, they know they need to send trustworthy people to the city to organise them into congregations and further instruct them in the Biblical teachings (22). The Apostles send Barnabas, who exhorts them to “cleave unto the Lord” and adds “much people” to the Church (Acts 11:22-24). At some point, assured that the Church of Antioch is able to function without him for a while, Barnabas goes to Tarsus to bring Saul to Antioch. Upon returning to Jerusalem, Acts 11:26 Barnabas and Saul spend another year in Antioch (Acts, 11:28). When the year is ended, Barnabas prepares to return to Jerusalem and take Saul with him. The Church of Antioch gathers an offering for the relief of the Judean Christians, who, due to their early socialism, and lingering hostility from the Jews, now live in poverty (Acts 11:29-30).
Saul is highly influenced by the Church of Antioch. From her shepherds, he learns more fully how Christ and His Church are taught in and fulfill the Old Testament. In her worship, he learns to worship as a Christian through liturgies and prayers patterned after the synagogue. In her fellowship he is prepared for his life calling. Through her, he will be commissioned to take the Gospel of Christ to the Jews and Gentiles of Asia, Macedonia, and Rome.
At the end of chapter 12, Barnabas and Saul are back in Antioch, with John Mark. We are not told how long they remained in Jerusalem, or how long they are in Antioch this time. We may be sure that Saul is drinking in the teaching and worship he sees in Jerusalem and Antioch, for we know God is using this time to prepare him to take the Gospel into Asia. Thus, in verse 2, the Holy Spirit guides the Church to “Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.” This happens some time around the year 47 A.D.
We notice that fasting and prayers precede the commissioning of Barnabas and Saul. This does not mean they skipped lunch to pray. The word from the Holy Spirit is presented in a way that shows that it comes to the Church in the regular worship service on the Lord’s Day. The prayer and fasting, then, probably continue through the following week, especially on the part of the Church leadership. In the regular Lord’s Day worship, perhaps the following Sunday, The missionaries are formally commissioned. It is an occasion of glad solemnity. The congregations probably assemble in one place. The ancient prayers and liturgies are read, along with the Scriptures assigned for the day according to the schedule in the Jewish book of prayer. The sermon is preached. At the appointed time, Barnabas and Saul are called to to front of the assembly, where they kneel. The bishop, pastors of the house churches in the city, and the prophets gather around to pray for and lay hands on the men. Barnabas and Saul are now missionaries and ambassadors for Christ. They will soon be preaching the Gospel in Cyprus (4, 5).
Antioch is a seaport city, so it seems natural that the evangelists would leave by ship, and that they would begin their work on an island in the Mediterranean Sea about 175 miles west of Antioch. Salamis is the first part of the island they come to. Here they disembark and preach the Gospel in the synagogues (5). They probably walk from there to Pahpos on the western side of Cyprus, preaching as they go. In Paphos, they meet the false prophet and sorcerer, Barjesus, or Elymas.
They stop in Pahpos at the invitation of Sergius Paulus, a high official in the area. But they are opposed by the sorcerer, who seeks to turn the deputy away from the faith (8). The forces of evil always seek to keep and turn people away from the faith. Beware of them and their tricks.
Saul is called “Paul” for the first time in verse 9. Paul is a Greek name, and Paul seems to think it will make him more accessible to the Grecians and Gentiles. The name has the meaning of “end” or “stop” in Greek, and Paul may be referring to the end of his old life as a Pharisee, and the start of his new life as a Christian and missionary. Filled with the Holy Ghost, Paul pronounces God’s judgement upon Elymas, who is immediately struck blind by a mist and darkness that comes over him (11). The deputy, witnessing this believes (12). We read of no other converts on Cyprus at this time, but this one receives the blessing of the undivided attention of Barnabas and Paul, teaching him the things of Christ and strengthening him in the faith.
In verse 12 the missionaries leave Paphos and sail north to Perga on the southern shore of modern Turkey, called in those days, Pamphylia. Notice Luke no longer refers to them as Barnabas and Saul, but as Paul and his company. Though Paul himself would never have used those words, Luke is showing that Paul is now the primary figure in the mission. But the wording is probably more significant than a mere change of leadership. It shows that the ministry of prophecy is being replaced with the ministry of expository preaching and Scripture. Paul will preach to the people, showing from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ. He will also send letters to the Churches established there, which, inspired by the Holy Spirit, make the prophets and other spiritual gifts less important. In addition, the presence of false apostles, false prophets, and false gospels, makes it increasingly difficult for the Church to know the true teachers from the false. A sure word is needed, which must be of Apostolic origin and, thus can be relied upon to give God’s truth. By this time, the Gospel of Matthew has been written, and is in general circulation in the Church. Mark will soon be added also, as will the letters of Paul and the Gospel and letters of John. The New Testament is beginning to take the position of authority in all matters of doctrine and practice, making prophecy and tongues obsolete.
After John Mark’s return to Antioch, Paul and Barnabas walk to a city called Antioch of Pisidia. It is almost due north of Perga, a distance of about a hundred miles. This is not the same Antioch from which Paul and Barnabas began their mission. That Antioch is in Syria, north of Israel and about three hundred miles south east of Antioch of Pisidia. Then, as now, many places have the same name.
Paul and Barnabas go to the synagogue on the sabbath day. We catch a small glimpse of the synagogue liturgy in the reading of the law and prophets in verse 15. The synagogues follow an annual cycle of Scripture readings, which enables the Jews to read and study the same Scriptures on the same day, no matter where they may be. This is a formal reading, done with much dignity as the scrolls are opened and read. The readings are preceded and followed by Psalms and prayers that are written and memorised, many of which are quoted in the Lord’s Prayer. At the end of the readings, the rabbi asks if any one has a word of exhortation (15). It is a God given opportunity, and Paul rises to speak. His exhortation, recorded in verses 17-41, contains the very essence of the New Testament message. It has several salient points.
First, in verses 17-23, God called Israel to be His own people, delivered them from Egypt and cared for them in the wilderness, finally brining them into Canaan. He gave them judges to lead them for four hundred and fifty years, then gave them Samuel the prophet. But Israel wanted a king like the other nations, and God gave them Saul and David.
Second, God has raised up a Saviour of the seed of David, who is Jesus. God sent John the Baptist, who fulfilled his ministry by identifying Jesus as the Saviour, but the rulers in Jerusalem did not recognise Him or understand the Old Testament prophecies about Him. Therefore, though He was guilty of no crime or sin, they gave Him to Pilate to be slain.
When He had fulfilled all that was written of Him on the cross, the Saviour was laid in the grave, dead. But God raised Him from the dead, and He was seen many days after His resurrection by the people who followed Him.
Third, “through this man [Jesus] is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.” These words bring two important issues to the minds of the Jews, who believe they are made acceptable to God through the works of the law. First, the law does not justify, for it is impossible to keep the law perfectly. Therefore, by the law, we become aware that we are sinners, rather than righteous. Second Christ can and does make those who believe in Him acceptable to God through His offering of Himself as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Paul will further expound these doctrines in future letters and sermons. And these verses in Acts probably give only a summary of them. But it is important for us to see that they are here in the beginning of Paul’s ministry, just as they are in the preaching of Philip, Stephen, Peter, and the Lord Jesus Himself. These doctrines comprise the Gospel of the Kingdom, and are the heart of the Church’s message from the start, not additions from the imagination of Paul.
Fourth Beware not to despise the Christ, or the salvation preached in His name. Believe in Him and be saved, for the despisers will perish.
Gentiles now desire to hear these things (42). They may be God fearers, or converts to Judaism. Or they may just be people who heard Paul’s words from outside of the synagogue. Whoever they are, the Holy Spirit gracefully allowed them to hear, and has awakened a desire for more in them. Jews, also, along with Gentile converts follow Paul and Barnabas, who continue speaking to them and persuading them to continue in the grace of God.
A week later Paul and Barnabas see great success as the whole city comes to hear the word of God (44). At the very same time, they experience terrible opposition as the leaders of the synagogue moved by envy, speak against Paul, contradicting his teaching and blaspheming God. (45). On a practical level alone, the leaders’ actions are foolish. Their envy seems to be the result of the large number of people gathered to hear Paul, while such crowds have never gathered to hear them. In other words, their concern is for popularity, not doctrine. So, if it is numbers they want, why not join Paul and begin to preach his Gospel? Or, just be patient, for the initial excitement of Paul’s preaching will fade, and many of the “converts” will return to their regular patterns of unbelief.
Instead, they oppose Paul, raise persecution against the missionaries, and expel them from their city (50). But before this happens, Paul is allowed to preach to the Gentiles (47), emphasising that Christ is a light of the Gentiles for salvation unto the ends of the earth. The Gentiles are glad when they hear this, for they understand that it means Christ is for them and their salvation, too. They glorify God, and “as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” Gentiles are included in the Good News. It is for them as well as Jews. It is for all who believe, and God has ordained that some among the Gentile are to have eternal life in Christ (48).
The missionaries’ expulsion from Antioch is a violent action that grabs and pushes them out of the city. It does not happen on this sabbath; it is the result of sneaking and plotting as the leaders stir up honourable women and chief men against Paul and Barnabas. When they are sure the time is right, they expel the preachers, probably using soldiers to actually push them out of the city, for the honourable women and chief men probably have enough influence to accomplish this. But whatever the method used, the missionaries are expelled. Shaking the dust off their feet as a sign against their persecutors, they turn east, and the next chapter finds them in Iconium.
The city of Iconium is about 75 miles east of Antioch, and has large populations of Jews and Greeks. Unlike the terms “Jews” and “Grecians” as used earlier in Acts, here Jews refers refers to all people of the Jewish faith, while Greeks are the Gentile pagans of the Greco-Roman world. This is the way the words are used in the Roman world outside of Israel.
Paul and Barnabas go to the synagogue, as they had done in Antioch (1), and a great number of both Jews and Greeks become believers. The missionaries reside in the city for what verse 3 describes as a “long time,” “speaking boldly in the Lord,” giving “testimony unto the word of his grace” and doing signs and wonders. Their labours necessarily include instruction of the believers, organising them into congregations, and preparing men to shepherd the congregations as pastor/teachers.
But the city is divided into believers and unbelievers, and, of course, the unbelievers are not content to allow the believers to live and worship in peace. An assault is planned against the Church with the goal of capturing Paul and Barnabas and killing them by stoning (5). Hearing of this, the missionaries “fled unto Lystra and Derbe, cites of Lyconia, and unto the region that lieth round about” (6). Lystra and Derbe are less than 100 miles from Iconium. “And there they preached the gospel” (7) and healed a lame man. The people, like so many today, paid no attention to the words of the Gospel and much attention to the healing. Believing the gods have come to them in the form of men, they prepare a feast and sacrifices, led by the priest of Jupiter (11-13).
The missionaries take the opportunity to explain that they are mere men, and to tell the people about God and the witness He has left among all people by rains and fruitful seasons that fill our hearts with food and gladness. Their words have little effect, but at least the people stop worshiping the missionaries. We would think they would naturally ask how the lame man was healed. Certainly it would seem that the priest of Jupiter would want to know, and as a respected leader in the community, would pose this question to the missionaries, and that the people would listen with rapt attention. But none of this seems to happen. No doubt the pagan party continues, even though the guests decline the honours ascribed to them.
In 19, Jews from Antioch and Iconium arrive and are able to turn the fickle people of Lystra against the missionaries. Their hatred now becomes as strong as their adoration had been, and they stone Paul to death and drag him out of the city, where they leave him to be eaten by animals or rot in the sun. But Paul is not dead, and in the presence of the disciples, for there were some converts in the city, he returns to the city to depart for Derbe the next day (20).
Stoning is intended to kill a person. Heavy rocks are hurled at the head and body of the victim, breaking bones and damaging internal organs, until the person dies. Though not dead Paul is unconscious, and in great pain. His injuries will probably cause lingering pain for the rest of his life. Yet he endures it, and continues to minister in the name of Christ. He, with much help from his fellow missionaries, walks the forty or so miles to Derbe, though the journey probably takes several days. He may also spend some time recuperating in that city before he is able to resume preaching. His ministry in Derby brings many people to Christ (21).
Concern for the Churches in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, outweighs his concern for his own safety, and leads Paul to return to these cities to confirm the souls of the disciples and exhort them to continue in the faith. He does not promise them an easy trip to Heaven. Instead he says, “we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (22). These are strong words to those who see what he has already endured.
Though their lives are in constant danger, the missionaries do not leave the cities until they ordain leaders in every church, and with fasting and prayers, commend them to the Lord on whom they believe (23). This will take time, for, in each church faithful men must be recognised and educated in the doctrines of Christ, and taught how to lead the worship and care for the flock. Paul teaches them to worship as he had learned, by the liturgies of the Jewish prayer book as modified by the Apostles to show the Saviour, Jesus Christ. Without this instruction, the new disciples would pattern their worship after the chaotic, pagan religions, from which they have come.
From Antioch the missionaries return to Perga. For some reason they go on to the neighbouring port of Attalia (25) Perhaps they were unable to find a ship bound for Antioch in Perga. It is the year A. D. 49 when verse 26 sees them safe in Antioch telling the Church “all that God had done with them, and how He had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles. And they abode long time with the disciples” (27, 28). No doubt they need much time to rest and heal, and to study and pray and worship with mature believers. It will be two years before they make another mission trip.
It is late in the year 49 A.D., and certain men have come from Judea saying, “unless ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved” (1). No doubt they have heard about the baptism of Gentiles in Asia, and have come to explain a few things to Paul and the Church of Antioch, where they have no small disputation. The result of their visit is a trip by Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to take the issue before the Apostles and elders. The issue at stake is not just circumcision. Male and female circumcision was widely practiced in the eastern Mediterranean area. The issue is the identity of the Church. Is it Jewish, which, therefore, requires Gentile believers to become Jews? Or is it something that goes beyond Jewishness to people without requiring them to become Jews.
A second issue is the nature of the ceremonial law, which requires Passover and animal sacrifices as well as many other rituals and ceremonies. Are these laws still in force? If so, Gentile converts must become Jews, and the Christian faith must be absorbed into the Jewish faith.
A third, and much more important issue concerns the essence of the way God saves His people. Is salvation accomplished by becoming Jewish and keeping the law? Or is salvation accomplished by the one sacrifice of Christ and received by faith apart from the law and the Old Testament faith of Israel?
The question causes much dissent in Antioch, and Paul and Barnabas are sent to Jerusalem to discuss it with the Apostles and elders (2). On the way they pass through Phoenicia and Samaria and convert a few Gentiles (3).
In Jerusalem, they are confronted by those who still consider themselves Pharisees and contend for the view that Gentiles must be absorbed into Christian Judaism. These are probably the same men who troubled the church in Antioch, here joined by several others of their belief. Paul and Barnabas present the case that salvation is by faith alone, therefore, believing Gentiles are as fully part of the New Israel as believing Jews. In fact, the Old Israel is no longer the way to God. Its sacrifices and rituals, and even its identity has been fulfilled in Christ, who alone is the way to the Father. The New Israel is a spiritual nation comprised of those who enter through faith in Christ.
After much discussion, Peter rises to speak (7-11). He reminds the brethren that God, by Peter’s own mouth took the Gospel to the Gentiles and gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit. He is referring to the conversion of Cornelius, and makes his point most strongly in verse 9, saying God “put no difference between us [Jews] and them [Gentiles], purifying their hearts [forgiving and saving them] by faith.”
Since they are saved by faith, just as we are saved by faith, “why tempt ye God to put a yoke upon the neck of the [Gentile] disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” (10). In other words, the Jews have never been able to keep the ceremonial laws and Pharisaical rules, why should they try to force the Gentiles to keep them?
The conclusion, in verse 11 silences the discussion. Peter says, “But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved.” The Jews, including converted Pharisees who have not quite been able to see the nature of the New Israel, are saved by grace, not the law. Therefore, the Gentiles must be saved by that same grace, not the law. Peter states it strongly, logically, and conclusively: “through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they” (emphasis added). The meaning is that both Jews and Gentiles are saved by grace through faith, therefore Gentiles are saved without becoming Jews.
The silent assembly now gives audience to Barnabas and Paul (12) who declare the wonders and miracles God has done among the Gentiles. There is not much left to say when they conclude. James, the brother of Jesus, who is among the elders, and is the bishop of Jerusalem, according to ancient writers, now addresses the assembly. He is a man held in high esteem, and though he is not an Apostle, he is highly regarded by them as a wise and Godly man. He has seen the truth of the Apostles’ words, and adds his own in support of their teaching. He refers back to the words of Peter (Simeon) regarding the conversion of Cornelius (14), saying the words of the prophets agree with Peter. He shows this by quoting from Amos 9, which includes the Gentiles in the Messianic Kingdom.
“Wherefore,” he says, “my sentence is that we trouble not them, which from the Gentiles are turned to God: but that we write unto them that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood” (20). These are things commonly practiced in pagan culture, even in their religions. So the Gentiles are being told to turn from sinful practices and habits of their culture, and trust and obey Christ alone. The Jews must do this as well, as we have seen throughout the Gospels and Acts. Thus, all people are to come out of the former identities, and all the things they trusted to make them acceptable to God, and especially to turn away from wicked ideas and practices, and to trust in Christ alone.
Why does it matter that Moses is preached and read in synagogues in every city on every sabbath day (21)? F. F. Bruce suggests it is because the synagogues offer a way to take the Gospel to the Jews, and that Gentiles, through the synagogues, can still hear the law taught, which they still need to know and understand (New International Commentary, The Book of Acts). Whether Dr. Bruce is correct or not, the fact that the law continues to be taught in the synagogues will please the men who caused the discussion (22).
A letter from the assembly is written and sent to to Antioch by Paul and Barnabas, who are accompanied by “Chief men among the brethren,” named Barsabas and Silas (22). Letters are also sent to the Gentile brethren in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia (23). It is very noteworthy that the Gentile believers are addressed as “brethren.” The Gospel of Jesus Christ continues to change and illumine the hearts and minds of Christians. They are slowly getting the point.
The content of the letters, given in verses 24-29, is read in Antioch, where the people rejoice for the consolation (31). Barsabas and Silas, remain in Antioch for some time teaching and exhorting the Church in that city. They are probably learning much from Paul during this time, too. At length Barsabas returns to Jerusalem though Silas remains in Antioch, and with Paul and Barnabus, and many others, continues teaching the word of the Lord.
We are now in the year A.D. 51, two years after Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch. Surely the Churches they established in their first mission have been much in their hearts and prayers, and they decide it is time to visit them again “and see how they do” (36). But the two missionaries disagree over taking John Mark, who returned to Antioch rather than continue the first mission. Because their disagreement is described as “contention” and “sharp” in verse 39, many conclude it involves an angry argument. But it need not be so understood. It may mean neither could be persuaded to accept the other’s desire, so they parted company simply agreeing to disagree. The result is that two teams set out from Antioch. Barnabas and Mark go to Cyprus. Paul and Silas go to Syria and Cilicia, beginning what is often called Paul’s second missionary journey. Both teams go, “confirming the churches” (41).
Paul still considers himself a missionary to Jews. His new name is adopted to help the Jews outside of Israel identify with Him, since many of them have adopted Greek ideas and ways. The disciple, Timotheus is an example of this kind of Jew. His mother, Eunice (2 Tim. 1:5) is Jewish, and his father is Greek. Marriage to Gentiles was forbidden by Old Testament law. Additionally, Timotheus seems to be a Greek name, so we see that the Jews of Derbe have a liberal approach to the faith.
Timotheus, or Timothy, as he becomes known in the New Testament is also a disciple. We would say, he is a Christian. It seems odd that Paul, who argued for the full inclusion of Gentiles without becoming Jews, now demands that Timothy be circumcised. But Paul wants Timothy to accompany him on the rest of the mission. He has obviously spent some time in Derbe, and has identified Timothy as someone who should be taught and prepared for the ministry. Travelling with Paul will give him the opportunity for much private instruction, and much observation of the work of a minister of the Gospel. Since Paul will usually begin his work in new places by going to the synagogue, the circumcision is done to avoid unnecessary offense to the Jews Paul wants to evangelise.
The letters from the Apostles in Jerusalem are shared with the churches they visit. Paul and Silas seem to spend much time in each city, and the churches are established in the faith and increased in number daily (5).
It is Paul’s intent to go east, continuing his practice of preaching in the synagogues and evangelising the Jews. But in Troas his plans are changed. Troas is on the north western side of the area the Romans called “Asia” and which we know today as Turkey. It is on the shore of the Aegean Sea near the ancient city of Troy. Macedonia is just across the Aegean to the west. This is very important because God has brought Paul, Silas, and Timothy to Troas for a reason. A vision appears to Paul in the night in which a man of Macedonia calls to him, “Come over into Macedonia and help us” (9). Paul understands God is telling him to go west into Europe rather than east toward the Jewish settlements in Asia and beyond. The day after leaving Troas they are ashore in Macedonia (11). They go to the chief city of that part of Macedonia, the Roman colony of Philippi (12).
There is a significant change in the narration of the story in verse 10. Many do not notice it, but it is very important for understanding Acts. Notice in verse 4, “they went through the cities.” In verse 6, “they had gone,” and in verse 7, “they were come.” “They” are Paul, Silas, and Timothy. But verse 10 says “the Lord had called us for to preach the gospel,” and verse 11 says “we came with a straight course.” The chronicler of the events has a participant in them. He tells about “us” and “we”, not just “they.” Luke has joined the missionaries.
There seems to be no synagogue in Philppi, but some Jews, with Gentiles attracted to the Jewish faith meet by a river for prayers on the Sabbath (13). Here the missionaries meet Lydia, the seller of purple (14), and history is made when she becomes the first person to convert to Christianity on European soil. She is not, however, the first European to become a Christian, for she is from Thyatira in Asia.
The deliverance of the damsel in verses 16-18 brings the wrath of the government upon the missionaries. The cruelty of the men using the girl’s misery for personal gain is despicable. It is no wonder, then, that they compound their evil by violently dragging Paul and Silas before the rulers, and inciting the people in the market place against them with lies (19-22). In the fury of mob violence the magistrates order the missionaries flogged and imprisoned, where they are made fast in stocks (24).
What misery must these men be suffering. No medicine for pain, feet in stocks, unable to recline in any position except on their bleeding and hurting backs, not knowing how long they will be in this situation, or if it may get even worse for them. Yet how incredible their faith is, as shown when, “at midnight Paul and Silas prayed and sang praises unto God” (25).
The miracle of the earthquake (26) does not happen to release the missionaries, it happens to convert the keeper of the prison (27). How he can sleep knowing he will be executed if any prisoners escape is surprising, but he is asleep and wakened by the quake. Rather than face a torturous death for letting prisoners escape, he immediately prepares to kill himself quickly by falling on his sword (27). But no prisoners escape. Paul, seeing the man and realising what is happening calls to him, “Do thyself no harm: for we are all here” (29).
Paul and Silas had prayed and sung hymns to God, and we are very specifically told, “and the prisoners heard them” (25). They were intended to hear them. The missionaries were not only taking their cares to God in prayer, or worshiping Him as they naturally do in the night. They were also telling the other prisoners about their faith. Their prayers surely included the other prisoners, and even the guard. Perhaps that is why the other prisoners make no attempt to escape. Surely it is why the guard cries out to the missionaries, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” How would he know about being saved if not for the witness of the missionaries in their worship, and, perhaps, also in conversation?
His question is answered in brief form (31), “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.” That is not the only instruction the man receives, for verse 32 says, “they spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house.” The guard takes them out of the prison to his own house, where he cares for their wounds and gives them food (33, 34). At some point in that night, the man is granted grace to believe in Christ, and he and his household are baptized. These are the first European converts, and it is very notable that the Gospel comes to Europe from Asia. It is often said Europe transformed Christianity, and this is hurled at Europeans as a charge of error and deceit. But in truth, Christianity transformed Europe. Its values permeated the culture and changed the way Europeans think about the responsibilities of political leaders, and the rights and duties of all people. Those values still shape Europe and her children nations. Even when distorted, as they usually are, we can still see traces of the values of human rights, personal duty, and responsible government, which come right from the pages of the Bible. It was not Greece or Rome that gave Europe democracy and human rights; it was Christianity.
Paul and Silas are Roman citizens, which in the Empire gives them preferential treatment. Flogging a Roman is prohibited, and when the magistrates are confronted with this fact, they “Feared” (38) and desired the missionaries to depart out of their city. That seems odd. We would think they would want to make amends with their former prisoners; maybe try to buy their friendship with gifts and profuse apologies. Instead they beg them to leave. But Paul and Silas take advantage of their protected status. They remain in Philippi, residing with Lydia, and comfort the brethren. There is teaching to be done, and probably baptisms, too. The missionaries must be given a chance to heal before being sent away. We know a vital church is established in this city through these efforts, for one of our most beloved books of the New Testament began as a letter from Paul to all the saints at Philippi (Phil. 1:1).
The missionaries leave Philippi, and we notice that the writer says “they” again, rather than “we.” Luke, apparently does not make this trip. They travel to Thessalonica,, about 200 miles south west of Philippi. It is a prosperous seaport with a large Jewish population, and Paul spends three weeks reasoning with the Jews from the Scriptures (2). He makes two important points. First, he shows from the Old Testament that the Christ must die and rise again from the dead. Second, Jesus is the Christ.
At first the Jews seem content to allow Paul to speak in the synagogue, but, soon they become jealous because of the many converts (4). They make an arrangement with lewd fellows of the baser sort to to start a small riot and set the city in an uproar. It is likely that most, if not all of the rioters are the synagogue leaders and hired henchmen. But there are enough of them to do much damage, and to make it appear that the city is incensed by “these that have turned the world upside down” (7). They assault Jason’s house, who seems to favour the missionaries. This means they break into his house by force, abduct him, and violently take him to the rulers of the city. They charge Jason and the missionaries with the same false charges the Jerusalem elites charged Christ with; treason by preaching that there is a king other than Caesar, whose name is Jesus (7). This is a serious charge, and the Romans may punish the whole city for having such people in it. They take security of Jason, probably a fine with a threat of flogging and execution if he continues to keep company with the missionaries. The brethren, meaning the converts, sneak the missionaries out of town at night (10), who immediately head for a town about a hundred miles west called Berea.”
Things go well in Berea. The Jews search the Scriptures with the missionaries, and many Jews and Greeks are converted (12). But the Jews of Thessalonica, learning of the missionaries’ presence in Berea, send people there to stir up the people as they had in Thessalonica (13), causing the converts to send Paul away to prevent the mob from killing them.
Paul travels to Athens, where he is exasperated by the rampant idolatry. Though he speaks with the Jews, he also accepts an invitation to speak to the Greek philosophers at a large rock hill known as the Areopagus and Mars Hill. “Superstitious” (22) sounds very demeaning to us, but the Greeks probably understand Paul to mean they are very religious, which they would accept as a compliment. The Greeks worship many gods, and even have an altar to an unknown god, just in case they have missed one. Paul, says, essentially, you have missed one. Let me tell you about the God you don’t know.
Rather than starting from the Old Testament, as he does with the Jews, Paul quotes from their own philosophers, including one from Tarsus named Aratus. The Greek gods were finite. They had beginnings, were born, and could die. But some philosophers also had an idea of a God who was above the Olympian gods, who created and orders the cosmos. When Plato used the word “God” he referred to this Being, as did other philosophers. This God is considered to be the One in whom we “live and move, and have our being,” “For we also are his offspring” (28). Ideas about this God are very confused, and vary from time to time and philosopher to philosopher, but they are present in Greek philosophy.
Paul tells them this God does exist, and He is a righteous judge who will judge the world in righteousness by the man He has raised from the dead (31). Paul may intend to go more deeply into the Biblical doctrine of sin. He certainly intends to speak more of Christ, but some begin to mock him when he refers to the resurrection of the dead (32), and the discussion ends with the Greeks wanting to hear more at a later date (32, 33). But some believe and are converted. Luke mentions Dionysius and Damaris, “and others with them.”
As the chapter closes, we see the Faith becoming established in Europe. Jews, Romans, Greeks, and some of the intellectuals are turning to Christ in faith. It has been a dangerous and costly business for the missionaries to take the Gospel to these people, but their faithful work is blessed with a measurable harvest.
Corinth is one of the most blessed places in Macedonia, for here the missionaries spend eighteen months evangelising, teaching the converts, and organising the Church into congregations. It will also become one of the most troublesome churches to Paul, continuing its troublesome ways long after his death.
Some of Paul’s time in Corinth is spent in the home of Aquila and Priscilla, tent makers from Italy who become Christians in Corinth. Paul is also a tent maker, and he goes to work for them, which is how he supports himself in Corinth, and, perhaps in other places.
Three major events occur during Paul’s time in Corinth. First is found in verse 6 where Paul says, “I will go to the Gentiles.” He has been reasoning with the Jews in the synagogue since his arrival (4), but the majority of the Jews reject his message. Luke uses an interesting phrase in verse 6, saying “they opposed themselves.” When we oppose God and blaspheme we really oppose ourselves by rejecting the grace that forgives our sin and opens the door to Paradise. Rejecting Him, we condemn ourselves to the eternal sorrows of hell. Thus, Paul, shaking the dust from his raiment, says the the Jews, “Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean: from hence forth I will go unto the Gentiles.”
Second, is the founding of the Church of Corinth. Two important Jews become members of the Church. Justus (7) lives beside the synagogue, and some commentators believe the Church meets in his home. Crispus (8) is the chief ruler of the synagogue, the senior rabbi. His conversion will be a source of irritation to the Jews, as well as a great loss to the synagogue. But his education in the Scriptures, and his experience as a rabbi, will be invaluable to the Church. The Lord promises that Paul will not be harmed in the assaults on the Church by the Jews, and says He has much people in this city (9, 10).
The third major event is Paul’s hearing before the deputy of Achaia, Gallio (12-16). According to historians and Bible scholars, Gallio is the Roman governor, whose decision essentially defines the official Roman definition of, and policy toward Christianity. The Jews charge Paul with preaching an illegal religion. The Romans really don’t care about a person’s religion, unless it interferes with Roman policy and the peace of the Empire. Some religions are banned on these grounds, and the Jews want Christianity banned on the same grounds for teaching that Jesus is another king beside Caesar. Judaism is a legal religion, though it certainly is not a favoured one because Jews in Israel are known for rebellions led by self proclaimed messiahs, and because many Jews outside of Israel refuse to participate in Roman festivals and Greek games. Therefore, Rome is beginning to tire of the Jews, and to move from an informal anti-semitic attitude to more active persecution of them. We see this reflected in Acts 18:2, which tells us Claudius has recently banned Jews from the city of Rome. Because of this ban, Aquila and Priscilla left Italy and settled in Corinth. We will also see it in the beating of Sosthenes in verse 17.
Therefore, though not well liked by the Romans and Greeks, the Jews of Corinth attempt to have the Roman governor ban Christianity. This will set a legal precedence, which will be followed by other Roman courts, making Christianity illegal and, therefore, treason, punishable by crucifixion.
Gallio does not like the Jews or care about their disagreement. He considers their dispute with Paul a matter of interpretation within the Jewish faith, and says, regarding the charge, “If it be a question of words and names, and of your law, look ye into it; for I will be no judge of such matters” (15). In other words, he dismisses the case. In doing so, Gallio has, for all legal purposes, just defined Christianity as part of Judaism, making it a legal religion throughout the Empire in the eyes of Roman law.
Anti-semitic feelings break into a small riot when Greek men seize Sosthenes, now the chief ruler of the synagogue, and savagely beat him in the very presence of the judgement seat of Gallio. The governor does nothing to stop the violence, for “Gallio cared for none of these things” (17), but Sosthenes will convert to Christianity and become a fellow worker in the Gospel with Paul (1 Cor. 1:1). It is amazing that this tragedy of hate is Providentially used to bring Sothenes to faith in the Saviour who loves Him. Truly, “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are the called, according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).
Returning to Asia, Paul stops in Ephesus, and again goes to the synagogue (19). These Jews want to hear more and desire him to stay longer (20). Apparently Paul wants to spend Passover and Easter in Jerusalem, remembering the Lord’s death and resurrection with the Apostles, so he leaves the city with a promise to return if God wills (21). He lands north west of Jerusalem at Caesarea, from which he goes to Jerusalem and salutes the church (22). Luke gives no further details of his visit to Jerusalem. Instead he quickly moves to Paul’s stop in Antioch, thus ending the second missionary journey. He spends some time in Antioch before starting his third missionary journey through the Galatian and Phrygian regions of Asia, strengthening the disciples (23). Paul does return to Ephesus again, as we will see in chapter 19:1.
Aquila and Priscilla have remained in Ephesus during Paul’s travels to Jerusalem and Antioch. The couple is probably very instrumental in laying the groundwork for establishing the Church of Ephesus, which will be one of the stronger churches in the area. While they are in Ephesus, they meet another Hellenised Jew, named for the Greek god, Apollo (24). He is described as eloquent and mighty in the Scriptures (24), who speaks boldly in the synagogue, but knows only the baptism of John (25).
There is some discussion over what it means to know only the baptism of John. Some believe it means Apollos knows the Gospel of Christ fully, but has not received Christian baptism. Others believe the words mean Apollos has received the baptism of John and knows Jesus is the Messiah, but does not know of Christ crucified and risen from the dead, therefore, he does not know the whole Gospel. Aquila and Priscilla, having spent more than eighteen months with Paul, are able to expound “unto him the way of God more perfectly (26). This would seem to support the view that Apollos does not know about the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ until it is told to him by Aquila and Priscilla. Therefore, it is in Ephesus that Apollos becomes a New Testament Christian. Leaving Ephesus, Apollos travels through Achaia visiting synagogues and showing that Christ is the Messiah and Saviour. He carries letters of introduction from Aquilla and Priscilla, who are known to the churches in the area through their association with Paul (27). His time with the disciples “helped them much” (27) and converts many Jews (28).
Apollos eventually arrives in Corinth, where he seems, to spend much time and become very popular (1). Later, when Paul chastises the Corinthian Church for dividing over leaders, some are saying, “I am of Apollos” (1 Cor. 1:12). There is no animosity between Paul and Apollos, as shown by Paul’s desire to have him come to Corinth (1 Cor 16:12), and his request in Titus 3:13 that Apollos come to Nicopolis, where Paul plans to spend the winter. Apollos seems to leave Ephesus without being baptized in the name of Christ, since there is no Church or clergy in that city at this time. His lack of Christian baptism will surely be rectified by the Church of Corinth.
The disciples in Ephesus in verses1-7 seem to be unfamiliar with Aquilla and Priscilla or Apollos, other wise, they would know the full Gospel story by this time. They have heard of Christ and received only John’s baptism. This suggests they were in Israel during the later part of John’s ministry, where they heard John tell of Christ the Messiah and were baptized, but do not know of the death and resurrection of Christ, or the remission of sins through faith in Him. Nor do they know of the Holy Ghost.
All of this is very significant, for it means these disciples still follow the Old Testament faith. Yes, they know Jesus is the Messiah, but they do not understand forgiveness and redemption through Him. That is why they have not received the Holy Ghost. When they learn the rest of the story from Paul, they believe in Christ in New Testament faith, receive Christian baptism, and the Holy Ghost (4-6).
This is the last time we read of people speaking in tongues as they receive the Holy Ghost. We first saw it in Acts 2 when the Apostles and disciples received the Holy Ghost on Pentecost. This miraculous event shows that the Holy Spirit has come to those of the Jewish people who believe in Christ. Those who hear Peter’s sermon and believe are baptized and receive the Holy Ghost, but there is no evidence that anyone but the disciples speak in tongues. In Acts 8 the Holy Spirit comes to the Samaritans. We next read of tongues in Acts 10:46 at the conversion of the house of Cornelius. The tongues are a sign to Peter that these Gentiles are true believers and partakers of the promises given to all mankind through the Old Testament Scriptures. They are full partakers with the Jews. They are saved by the grace of the same Messiah, children of the same God, members of the same Kingdom, and filled with the same Holy Spirit as the Jews. And just so Peter can be sure of this, the Gentile believers speak in tongues as Peter and the disciples had on Pentecost. Lydia Does not speak in tongues at her conversion (16:16). She is a Gentile who worships God with Jews and other Gentiles in Philippi. Whether Jew or Gentile, the sign that the Spirit has come to them has already been shown on Pentecost or in the house of Cornelius. So the Holy Spirit comes to them without tongues. The converts in Corinth, who later have such difficulty with the issue of tongues, are not said to speak in tongues at conversion or during Paul’s eighteen months in that city. The next time we read of tongues is here in Acts 19 at the conversion of these disciples of John the Baptist. Why do they speak in tongues? Because God is showing the reality of His promise that the Gospel would go to Jerusalem, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth. He gave the sign of tongues as evidence that the Gospel, and with it, the Holy Spirit is for all people. With that accomplished, there is no further need for tongues at baptism/conversion.
Paul returns to the synagogue to speak boldly to the Jews, which he continues for three months (8). The hardening in verse 9 refers both to hardening of the heart against the Gospel, and the hardening of the opposition against Paul. In response, Paul stops going to the synagogue and begins teaching in a school of Tyrannus, which he continues for almost two years. Since Ephesus is a large and important city, thousands of people come to it each year for business, and to worship in the temple of Diana. It is from those who make their living selling statues of Diana that the next organised opposition to the Gospel comes.
Signs and wonders are done in the city through Paul (11, 12). Notice in verse 11 they are “special miracles.” Miracles are by definition “special.” They are not normal or regular events to be expected as the normal course of Christian experience. They were given to confirm the preaching of the Gospel in the early years of the Church. We now have the complete word of God in the Old and New Testaments, and the miracles of our time are chiefly the enabling of those who are dead in sin to be made alive in Christ and believe in Him as Lord and Saviour. These miracles take place in the inward being, rather than the outward body. Yes, thankfully, God does sometimes miraculously heal disease without the use of the normal means of medication and/or the natural ability of the body to heal itself. But those occasions are rare, in spite of what some media preachers would have us believe.
The vagabond exorcists (13) seem to be Jews who make a living performing exorcisms from town to town. In other words, they are sorcerers, using magic spells and charms to exorcise demons. And they are able to drive out demons, but their power is not from God, and there is no eternal salvation through their works. They truly drive out demons by the power of the prince of demons. These men, seeing Paul drive out demons in the name of Christ, attempt to use the name of Jesus as another one of their spells and charms. Unfortunately for them, the demons don’t respond. “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” the demon challenges in verse15. And leaping upon the exorcists, the demon strips and beats them and drives them away so that all in Ephesus know of their failure.
The result of this event is a reverent fear that comes over the people of Ephesus, and the salvation of many souls (17, 18). Even many of the sorcerers are enabled to believe in Christ (19). Their repentance is shown by the destruction of their books of magic and spells, which would have been worth a fortune if they had sold them.
Paul has now been in Ephesus for somewhere between eighteen months and two years. He desires to go to Jerusalem and Rome, but sends Timothy and Erastus to Macedonia, where they will likely visit churches in Philippi and other cities (22). Meanwhile, Paul remains in Asia, though he does seem to leave Ephesus for short visits to other churches.
During this time the people who make their living through the temple of Diana in Ephesus, are noticing a decrease in profits. Demetrius, with other craftsmen who make shrines and statues to sell to those making pilgrimages to the temple, are concerned that their businesses is decreasing as the number of Christians increases (27), and a meeting of the workmen is called (25). After the speech of Demetrius, the men are full of wrath, and as often happens when unthinking people are full of wrath, they become a mob and begin to march through the city, chanting, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians” (28). They seem to block traffic and impede normal business as they storm through the streets. The disruption they cause is so bad verse 29 says the whole city is filled with confusion.
Not content with their disruption of normal people’s lives, the mob finds two of Paul’s companions (29). This cannot be an accident. They know where Gaius and Aristarchus are, and, becoming more angry and less rational as they storm through the city chanting, they abduct their victims and violently rush into the theatre, where they intend to harm or kill the Christians.
Paul starts for the theatre when he hears about the mob, but people convince him not to go (30). Alexander wants to address the crowd (33), but knowing him as a Jew the crowd chants all the more loudly and hysterically (34). Finally, one of their own, the townclerk, who seems to be a person of importance and power, is able to get the mob quiet and calm, and he begins to speak to them (35). He affirms that he is one of them, believing the statue of Diana in the temple fell from the sky as a gift from the god Jupiter. He also says Gaius and Aristarchus have done no wrong, but, if anyone has a charge to make against them, he should pursue it through the courts, “for the law is open, and there are deputies” (38), meaning officials to judge the matter. He concludes with a fairly clear warning that if the Romans hear of this assembly doing anything amiss, or of a mob killing people in the theatre, they may be called to “give an account of this concourse” (40). The clear implication is that an account will condemn the guilty people, and result in their torture and death. He dismisses the people, who, seeing the truth of his words, leave the theatre.
We have come to a very significant chapter in Acts, and, indeed, in the New Testament, and we will not fail to see it when we come to it. Meanwhile, we see Paul leaving Ephesus, noting that he leaves only after the uproar is over and the Church is dwelling in relative peace (1). He makes a quick tour through Macedonia, dwells in Greece for three months, and, due to a Jewish plot to kill him as he boards ship in Greece, goes on foot through Macedonia, where he sails from Philippi to Troas (1-6).
Verse 4 shows several men traveling with him. Sopater is one of the noble Bereans who searched the Scriptures to see if Paul speaks the truth, but whose city was stirred into hate and violence against the Church by Jews from Thessalonica (Acts 17:10-14). Aristarchus and Gaius are the men taken to the theatre by the mob in Ephesus (Acts. 19:29). Timothy has been with Paul for about six years, and has often been sent on missions on his own. Tychicus has also been with Paul for some time, and is mentioned in many of Paul’s letters. He is called a beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord, and it is probably by him that the book of Ephesians is taken to that Church (Eph, 6:21, 22). Trophimus will be with Paul when he is arrested in Jerusalem (Acts 21:29). We will read of him again in 2 Timothy 4:20, where he is in Militum suffering from illness. For some reason, Paul sends these men ahead of him to Troas, while he stays in Philippi for Passover (5, 6).
Verse 6 says, “we sailed away from Philippi.” The place is not the important part of this verse, the pronoun is. “We” means Luke is with Paul again. It is likely that he has visited Paul during his time in Corinth and Ephesus, but verse 6 finds him formally traveling with Paul again. Paul knows he will face trouble in Jerusalem. He must find much comfort in the presence of these men, many of whom have already suffered threats or actual violence for the faith, and who will carry on the ministry of the Gospel of Christ after his death.
The thing that makes Acts 20 a very significant chapter is the clear statement in verse 7 that the Church of Troas meets for its regular worship service on the first day of the week. We find other references to worship on Sunday in the Scripture. First Corinthians 16:2 requests the church to receive a collection when it gathers on the first day of the week, and Revelation 1:10 refers to the Lord’s Day in a way that clearly expects readers to understand it as the day of the week on which Christ arose from the dead, and on which the Church meets for worship.
Paul worshiping on the first day of the week shows three things. First, the practice does not receive his condemnation. Second, allowing it implies his permission, and maybe even his endorsement. Third, since he shows no surprise at the practice, and since the Church of Corinth also worships on Sunday, it is likely that Paul also regularly worships on the Lord’s day, and that it is he who has taught this practice to the churches.
Thus, we must conclude, worship on Sunday became the standard practice very early in the history of the Church. We must also conclude that it had the approval of the Apostles, and, may even be done by their command. This is important to us today because many say we should worship on Saturday, since that is the Old Testament Sabbath, and there is no clear command for Sunday worship in the New Testament. Some even say worshiping on Sunday is the mark of the beast in Revelation 13:16. The statement of John in Revelation 1:10, and Paul’s participation in worship on Sunday in Acts 20:7, give us assurance that worship on Sunday is permitted, and we who do so are not wearing the mark of the beast or breaking the commandment of God.
The second reason verse 7 is so significant is that Sunday worship shows that Christianity and Judaism are not exactly the same. Most Gentiles at this time in Paul’s ministry consider Christianity a sect of the Jewish faith, like the Pharisees. Today we might call it a denomination. Gallio legally equates Christianity and Judaism in the eyes of Roman law in Acts 18:15, and the continuing attendance of Christians in the Temple and synagogues in Jerusalem and Israel, further strengthens the public perception that Christianity is a subset of Judaism. Even some Apostles have difficulty seeing Christianity as more than Jewish, as we see in the case of Cornelius (Acts 11:1-3), and in the controversy that leads to the council in Jerusalem (Acts. 15:1-29).
Worshiping on Sunday, apart from the synagogues, shows that Christianity, while springing from, and honouring its Jewish roots, is not the same as Old Testament Judaism. It shows that the new era has arrived, of which Judaism was the prelude, not the concert. In this new era, the Messiah invites Jews to come out of Judaism, and Gentiles to come out of their cultures and backgrounds, into a spiritual kingdom that is different from the national Jewish kingdom of Israel. Because the spiritual kingdom is different from national Judaism, Gentiles do not have to become Jews to enter it. They don’t have to obey the ceremonial laws, offer sacrifices in the Temple, or keep the Pharisees’ rules. Faith in Christ alone makes one a member of the Messianic Kingdom.
The worship in Troas takes place in the evening, when the people have completed their work for the day. They probably share a meal together, though breaking bread in verse 7 probably refers to the Lord’s Supper. We know from 1 Corinthians 11:21 that the Church often had the Lord’s Supper after a meal, just as our Lord did on the night before He suffered in Jerusalem. The sermon is particularly long, hours long, going until midnight (7). Eutychus is unable to give full attention, and, eventually falls asleep. In this case, he very literally falls asleep, tumbling from the third floor window to his death. Paul, by God’s grace and power, is able to raise him (10), thus preventing what the people believe is his last sermon to them from ending in tragedy. We may be sure Eutychus never falls asleep during the sermon again.
Paul goes to Miletus, where he sends for the elders of the Church of Ephesus. When these beloved friends arrive, Paul begins to recount some of his experiences to them. He does not do this to impress them, or to reminisce about old times. He does it to remind them that he served God and His Church faithfully, even though he often suffered for it (19-22). His primary motive, found in verses 28-31, is to encourage the same faith and faithfulness in the Ephesian pastors. “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood,” he says to them. “Take heed.” Take care. Be diligent about living a Godly life, and teaching the truth about Christ. Take heed that you guard the flock, for grievous wolves will enter in among you. There will be false apostles and false prophets. People claiming to be Christians will come teaching another christ and preaching another gospel. They will attempt to lead the sheep astray for their own profit (29). Even some of the pastors of their flock will speak perverse, unBiblical doctrines to “draw away disciples after them” (30). Verses 31-35 plead once more with them to remain faithful, and remind them again of Paul’s conduct among them as an example for them to follow and a reminder that opposition will rise against them. He closes by kneeling and praying with them (36).
The elders are deeply moved. Thinking Paul is going to his death in Jerusalem, they believe this is the last time they will hear him teach or pray with them. Even Paul believes this, as we see in verse 38. Weeping, and kissing him on both cheeks according to a custom still practiced in that area today, they accompany Paul to the ship and bid goodbye to their friend and teacher.
We cannot read Acts 20 and 21 without wondering why Paul is so determined to go to Jerusalem. We know from 1 Corinthians 16:2 that he had been asking the churches of Asia and Europe to collect a financial offering for the Christians in Jerusalem, who are still suffering poverty from their failed socialist experiment. But that could have been sent to Jerusalem by other men. His desire to go to Jerusalem seems so odd because he receives several warnings that trouble awaits him there, and several entreaties to stay away from that city. In Tyre, the disciples “said to Paul through the Spirit, that he should not go up to Jerusalem” (3, 4). In the home of Philip in Caesarea, Agabus tells him he will be placed in bonds in Jerusalem (11), and his companions and the Christians of Caesarea “besought him not to go up to Jerusalem” (12). Prior to these warnings, “the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me” (Acts 20:23).
Some believe Paul makes a mistake by going to Jerusalem. They say he is being disobedient to the warnings God gives, and is mistaking his own feelings for the leadership of the Spirit. Others say Paul goes at God’s command. Matthew Henry interprets “bound in the spirit” (20:22) as meaning Paul goes to Jerusalem by divine direction, not from any “humour or design” of his own. He is led by the Spirit, and bound to follow Him where ever He leads.
It is true that we often, perhaps even, usually, confuse our own feelings and desires with the leadership of the Holy Spirit. I have heard people say “God gave me this song,” then sing something filled with very unBiblical words and ideas. I have heard of people believing God told them to marry a certain person, only to find out God didn’t tell the other person. These people would have been much better off, and much more pleasing to God, if they had based their songs on Biblical doctrine, and their ideas of who to marry on Biblical teachings about morality, the qualities and duties of a husband and wife, and the nature of of Biblical, Christian home life.
It is also true that neither Paul, nor any of the Apostles were infallible. Yes, they gave the infallible word of God when they wrote Scripture and preached under His direct inspiration, but at other times they were capable of mistakes, and even sin. Thus we see Peter drawing back from the Lord’s words about him, and asking in essence, what about John, in John 20:15-22. They were men like ourselves, and they had to grow in grace and faith and holiness, just like us, though their progress in these things obviously far surpassed our own.
In this case, the words of Acts 20:22 seem to indicate that God is leading Paul to Jerusalem for a purpose Paul does not yet know. As he will see, God will use the events in Jerusalem to allow Paul to preach the Gospel of Christ in the capital city of Judaism and in the capital city of paganism. Like Joseph’s bondage in Egypt, God means Paul bondage in Jerusalem for good, “to save much people alive” (Gen. 50:20)
The carriages of verse 15 are luggage, not horse drawn vehicles. Paul uses ships when necessary, otherwise, he walks to his destinations. In verse 17, Paul and his company are in Jerusalem, gladly received by the brethren. The third missionary journey is over. Verse 18 records a formal gathering attended by James and the elders of the Jerusalem Church, but no Apostles are mentioned. They, like Paul, are taking the Gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth, thus, James is the leading personage in the Jerusalem Church when Paul arrives (18).
There is some question about the identity of James. We know he is not the Apostle and brother of John, for that James, was killed by Herod years before Paul’s return to Jerusalem (Acts 12:2). A second James is also an Apostle, and is differentiated from the brother of John by being called the son of Alphaeus (Mk. 3:16-19). Many believing it would be odd to leave Israel without an Apostle in residence, conclude he must be the James of verse 18. A third James is called the brother of the Lord, and is a leading figure in the Jerusalem church, but not an Apostle. He is identified by some early writers, such as John Chrysostom, as the bishop of Jerusalem.
Archbishop Chrysostom believes the brother of the Lord is the James of verse 18. His conclusion makes sense, based on the obvious concern of the Jerusalem Christians with keeping the ceremonial laws and customs of the Jews, rather than seeing their fulfillment in Christ. The Jerusalem Church has lapsed back into Judaism, which the Apostles, especially Peter, would not have permitted if they had been in the city.
Whoever James may be, the Jerusalem Christians have continued to keep the ceremonial law and attend the services and sacrifices of the Temple. As verse 20 says, “they are all zealous of the law.” Some of them are very disturbed because they have heard Paul teaches Jews to “forsake Moses,” and not “to walk after the customs.” “Moses” refers to the laws of sacrifices and holy days, not the moral teachings of the Old Testament. The “customs” are the dietary laws and circumcision, and, probably some of the Pharisees’ traditions.
An important question is being raised here: are the Mosaic ceremonies and customs still necessary for Christian Jews, or have they been superseded by the work of Christ? We could put this another way, by asking, are the Old Testament rituals and sacrifices symbols and types of Christ, which are obsolete now that He has come? Or do they have merit in themselves that make it necessary for Christian Jews to continue to keep them?
There is, of course the possibility that the ceremonies and customs are matters of choice, which Jewish Christians are free to keep or not according to their own preferences, but that does not seem to be the view of the people confronting Paul in the Jerusalem Church. We are told they are zealous for the law and customs (20, 21), implying that they believe all Christian Jews must be equally zealous.
The elders in verses 20-25 certainly are zealous. They ask Paul to show his own zealousness by being “at charges” for four Christian Jews who are taking Nazarite vows, according to the Old Testament law in Numbers 6. To be “at charges” (24) means to supply the sacrificial lambs for the men’s purification. This will show everyone that Paul still honours the customs of Israel, and that he has not taught Christian Jews to forsake them.
There are two major problems here. First, Nazarite vows include sacrificing a lamb as a sin offering (Lev. 6:14). Remembering that Jesus is “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world (Jn. 1:29), and that “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins (Heb. 10:4), it would seem that an animal sin offering implies that the sacrifice of Christ is insufficient. Such an action, especially on the part of a person who calls himself a Christian, is blasphemous.
Second, looking over the letters of Paul in the New Testament, we see he did teach Jews to forsake the ceremonial laws and customs. According to the laws and customs, Jews cannot eat with Gentiles. Yet, Peter, in the house of Cornelius, stayed with and ate with Gentiles (Acts 10:48), as he did also in the Church at Antioch, including eating the Lord’s Supper with Gentiles. But when Jewish Christians from Jerusalem came to Antioch, Peter separated himself from the Gentile Christians, and returned to the Jewish customs. Paul rebuked Peter for this. Writing of it in Galatians 2:11-19, Paul said, “I withstood him to the face” (Gal. 2:11). Paul is saying it is wrong to keep the former custom that separated Jews from Gentiles. He is reiterating what God showed Peter already in Joppa, “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common” (Acts 10:15).
Since Paul’s work in Asia and Europe established churches that contain both Jew and Gentile converts, he had to teach the abolition of the separation custom. In its place, he taught that, in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek (Gentile), “for ye are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal, 3:28). He makes the same point more emphatically in Ephesians, saying Christ has made Jews and Gentiles one (Eph. 3:14). He reiterates it in the well known words of Ephesians 4:4-6, where he says there is one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, and one baptism, because there is one God and Father of all, meaning Gentiles and Jews. In Colossians 2, Paul definitely teaches some of the ceremonies and customs of Moses are no longer valid. They are “a shadow of things to come,” which he calls “the rudiments of the world,” such as “Touch not, taste not handle not, Which all are to perish” (Col 2:20-22).
If we look back to the words of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Gospels, we will see that Paul’s words express exactly what our Lord taught about the Kingdom of the Messiah, who may enter it and how it may be entered. Look, for example, at our Lord’s words in Matthew 9:17, Mark 2:22, and Luke 5:37 and 38.
Yet, Paul decides to accept the suggestion to sponsor the Christian Jews making the Nazarite vows (26, 27). The time of their ritual purification is almost completed, though the sacrifices have not been offered (7), when Jews from Asia recognise Paul and drag him out of the Temple intending to beat him to death (27-31). What has Paul done that offends these Jews? The answer is found in verse 28, “This is the man that teacheth all men everywhere against the people, and the law: and this place.” Please read that again: he “teacheth all men everywhere against… the law… and this place.” The law to which they refer, is the ceremonies of Moses and the customs of verse 21, which the Jerusalem Christians are so eager to show Paul keeping. Being from Asia, the accusers have some familiarity with Paul’s teaching, and the churches he has established. They may even have heard Paul’s sermons in the churches and synagogues. Therefore, they are aware that he does teach Christian Jews are one body with Christian Gentiles. They also realise that, if Paul’s teachings about the Messiah are true, Jews must abandon Judaism and join the Church. Rather than give Paul’s teaching fair and thoughtful consideration, by searching the Scriptures to see if they are true, the accusers attempt to kill Paul as the Jerusalem Jews killed the Messiah before him. We cannot help wondering if the outburst of verse 28 is the Providence of God preventing Paul from completing a ceremony that is a turn away from the one sacrifice of Christ and a return to the shadow and rudiments which are all to perish (Col. 2:20-22).
The Roman army arrives, which stops the beating (32), but the crowd continues to shout for the execution of Paul. These are non-Christian Jews, some from Asia and Europe, who already hate Paul and the faith he proclaims. The Roman captain believes Paul is an Egyptian, who gathered an army of four thousand men to attack Roman army units in Israel (38). Finding he is not the Egyptian, he grants Paul, bloody and aching, to address the crowd in Hebrew (40).
Chapter 21 ended with Paul, rescued from the Jews by the Romans, and given permission to address the people who want to kill him. Verses 1-23 give his words to the Jews, and their violent reaction, “it is not fit that he should live.”
Paul’s defense includes his own former persecution of the Church, which he calls, “this way” in verse 4. He also tells of his conversion (6-16), and his return to Jerusalem. Notice that he pointedly says he prayed in the Temple (17), which implies that he honours, rather than pollutes the Temple, as they have charged him in Acts 21:28. He is warned by Christ to leave Jerusalem because the Jews will not receive his testimony concerning Christ (18).
Up to this point, the Jews have been listening, but, in verse 21 Paul tells the Jews the Lord repeats His command to depart from Jerusalem, adding, “for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles” (21). At these words, the uproar begins again, with threats of violence against Paul and riots in the streets. The captain has the soldiers take Paul to the castle, where he intends to scourge him until he tells them why the Jews want him dead (24). We remember that the scourging of Christ left Him so weak he was unable to carry His cross. Such a beating would leave a man scarred and sick for months, if he lived through it at all. Yet the Romans intend to scourge Paul on the baseless accusations of a mob, and on charges that have nothing to do with Roman law. Meanwhile, the real criminals, who assaulted Paul, go free.
The captain fears for his own life when he learns Paul is a Roman citizen. “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman and uncondemned? (25, 29). The answer, of course, is, no, it is not lawful. So Paul is spared from a vicious beating. The next day, the Roman commands the chief priests and all their council to appear before him and present their case against Paul.
The priests and council are not allowed into the castle. Their accusations are presented outdoors in front of the castle, with Paul near enough to answer their charges. The front of the castle is lined with Roman soldiers in full battle array, and the chief captain also armed and in armour listens to the discourse from the portico of the castle. Justice and truth have no part in the agenda of the priests and council. Their only concern is the death of Paul. This is shown by the High Priest’s order to smite Paul on the mouth (2), a vicious, hard, open-hand blow, for which there is no precedence in the Old Testament law. Paul retracts his statements about Ananias when he learns he is the High Priest, but the man’s hypocrisy is still true.
Paul is able to divide the accusers over the resurrection, saying, “of the hope of the resurrection I am called in question” (6). Because of this, the attack on Paul disintegrates into a great dissension between the Sadducees, who deny the resurrection, and the Pharisees, who believe in it (10). Now, seeing his duty to protect the Roman citizen from the Jews, the captain sends soldiers out to bring Paul to safety (10). That night, the Lord comforts Paul saying, “Be of good cheer, Paul: for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome” (11). Thus we see the hidden hand of God working through these events. They appear to be random and accidental, but God is using them to accomplish His purpose, as He did in the lives of Moses, David, and Joseph. We also may find comfort in these words, seeing in them the demonstration that God works all things together for good to those who love Him, and are the called, according to His purpose (Rom 8:28).
Warned by Paul’s nephew (16) that forty Jews have vowed to kill Paul (14), the chief captain sends Paul to Caesarea under the protection of two hundred Roman soldiers who leave Jerusalem under cover of darkness (23). He sends a letter to the governor, Felix, explaining that Paul was involved in a controversy with the Jews over questions of their law, but he found nothing in Paul worthy of bonds or death under Roman law (29). The captain says he rescued Paul from the Jews, having understood that he was a Roman. He actually learned of Paul’s Roman citizenship as he was preparing to have Paul scourged (27). His little twist of the facts is an attempt to make himself look good to the governor.
Felix declines to hear Paul until his accusers are brought to him in Caesarea (35). We learn in Acts 24:26 that he also hopes to get money from Paul as a bribe, which, had Paul paid it, would have secured his release.
Tertullus has a Latin name, and some commentators believe his use of Greek suggests he received a Roman education. It is true that his words, “we took and would have judged him according to our law” (6), identify him as a Jew, but he seems to be more Roman than Jewish in views and loyalties. This, combined with his oratory skill, which the Romans value, makes him a smart choice to present the Jews’ accusations to Felix. The charges against Paul have, to this point been nebulous and indistinct accusations involving the Jewish religion. Tertullus changes that by presenting clear charges in a logical presentation, which appear to make Paul guilty of breaking Roman law, and committing a crime for which the Jews can even have a Roman citizen executed. After much flattery of the governor, Tertullus states the charges.
The first accuses Paul of being a pestilent fellow. This may not sound too serious to us, but Rome values peace in the Empire, and those who disturb the peace are severely punished. Riots and disturbances have occurred in many cities during Paul’s time in them, and, it is being implied that Paul caused them. Of course the riots were caused by people denying Paul the right to speak and believe as he feels God leads, but that fact is always left out of the accusations against Paul.
Second, and most offensive, is treason against Rome. He calls Paul “a mover of sedition among all the Jews throughout the world.” Treason is not clearly defined by Roman law, which enables it to be interpreted very broadly and applied to practically any group or person out of favour with the local governor. Christ was crucified under the Roman charge of treason, and any person considered to be disturbing the peace of the Empire could be executed under the same charge. This is the charge that will also be brought against the Christians by Nero and succeeding Emperors, which will take so many thousands of the Lord’s people to their deaths. When Tertullus says “sedition,” he is accusing Paul of trying to enlist the Jewish people in a revolution against Rome under Christ as the Messiah, raised from the dead, and returned as a military king to destroy Rome.
Third, Paul is a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. This charge further links Paul with Christ, who was executed for treason. It means Paul is a leader of the sect that follows the traitor, Jesus the Nazarene. Therefore, Paul, too, is a traitor to Rome. All of these charges sound very much like those used against Christ, and, it is hoped by the accusers that they will have the same result for Paul they had for Christ.
Fourth, he has profaned the Temple. We remember this as one of the original charges against Paul in 21:28 and 29. There Paul was accused of bringing Greeks, meaning, Gentiles, into the Temple. He had not done so, as the people accusing him probably know full well. But, in their hate, they invent this accusation, knowing that it carries the death penalty.
Because of this last charge, Tertullus says the Jews would have judged him according to their law, if the Roman captain, identified here as Lysias had not interfered. Of course, they were not judging Paul according to their law. A mob was acting on an accusation by a few men. There was no investigation or attempt to learn the truth or falsehood of the charge. They simply dragged Paul outside and begin beating him. No Jews attempted to stop them or seek the truth. The Jews, who have made Tertullus their spokesman, also act as witnesses, “saying that these things were so” (9).
Paul absolutely denies the charges, saying he did not do what they accuse him of, therefore, they have not and cannot prove he did (12, 13). He does confess to believing what the accusers called heresy. This is a reminder and appeal to the captain’s opinion of the hearing in Jerusalem as stated in his letter to Felix (23:29). The captain states that the accusers had a dispute with Paul over theological issues in their religion, and Paul has done nothing against Rome or Roman law. Thus, Felix is reminded that Paul is in protective custody, and would be free if not for the plot to murder him, with the full knowledge and cooperation of those accusing him this day before Felix. It is because of their plot that he was brought to Felix, not because any guilt was found in him.
Paul moves on to tell of the alms and offerings he brought to Jerusalem from other places (17) and that he was in the Temple “purified” according to Old Testament law, neither with multitude, nor with tumult (18) when the others attacked him. In other words, he was in the Temple doing what the ceremonies of Moses and customs of the Jews command, with no Gentiles. He was not preaching; he was not causing a disturbance. He was minding his own business in complete accordance with the Jewish law (12), when the Jews from Asia illegally and violently dragged him to the street to kill him. Paul further points out that the Asian Jews are his real accusers, and they, not Tertullus, the High Priest, and the other priests, should be in Caesarea speaking to Felix (19).
As for the priests who are present, let them tell what evil they found in Paul when they accused him before the Roman captain, Lysias (20). They cannot because they found none. The only thing they found was his belief in the resurrection of the dead, and it is because of this theological question, which is discussed and debated by many Jews, that Paul is on trial before Felix (21).
Felix wisely says he will make no decision until he hears from Lysias (22). He commands a centurion to keep Paul, but at liberty, presumably in the palace, until Lysias appears and testifies (23). Paul remains in Caesarea for two years (27) causing us to wonder what happened to Lysias. During this time, Paul has several conversations with Felix and his Jewish wife, Drusilla, about the faith in Christ (24), which includes some of the basic Bible doctrines, such as righteousness and temperance (self control), and of judgement to come (25). Felix is frightened by these teachings, and sends Paul away. We next read of Paul two years later, when Festus arrives in Caesarea to succeed Felix as procurator of Israel. Festus is a shrewd politician, and courts Jewish cooperation rather than ruling them by force. Therefore, he is willing to allow the Jews a small measure of self rule in return for their keeping the peace and quelling rebellions and riots in the country. When Festus arrives Paul is bound (27). The chains are probably part of Felix’s attempt to extort money from Paul (26). If Paul simply pays the money, the chains will come off, and Paul will go free.
Festus becomes procurator of southern Palestine in the year 59. Three days after his arrival at the palace in Caesarea, he visits the most troublesome city in his province, Jerusalem. Naturally, there is a formal, welcoming ceremony, which the High Priest, and high ranking officials and citizens attend. In a later, private meeting, Ananias, the High Priest, attempts to persuade Festus to send Paul to Jerusalem and allow the Jews to try him in their own court according their law. We see in verse 3 that Ananias never intends to let Paul get to Jerusalem. He is part of a conspiracy to ambush and kill him on the road.
Festus decides to keep Paul in Caesarea, to which he will soon return (4). He invites Ananias to gather other officials and travel to Caesarea with Festus to try Paul there. In this trial, the Jews, “laid many grievous complaints against Paul, which they could not prove” (7). Festus realises the accusations are simply an attempt to use the law to murder an innocent man, for in a later conversation with Agrippa, he says the accusers brought “none accusation of such things as I supposed” (18). He means there are no real accusations of breaking Roman law. Instead, their accusations are about “certain questions against him of their own superstition, and of one Jesus, which was dead, whom Paul affirmed to be alive” (19).
Verse 9 tells us Festus wants to do the Jews a pleasure. He is courting the favour and cooperation of the High Priest and people of influence in Israel, and he is willing to give Paul to them, even though he knows Paul has done nothing wrong, and the Jews will kill him. He knows the judges in Jerusalem will be the very people who accuse Paul in Caesarea. He knows Paul is in Caesarea because these very men plotted to kill him, and he knows Paul has already been tried by Lysias and Felix with no conviction. Festus simply doesn’t care. He considers the price of an innocent man’s death worth the cooperation he will receive from Ananias and the Jerusalem elites.
Paul, realising what Festus and Ananias are doing, declines to go to Jerusalem. He states that he has done no wrong, and Festus knows it (10). Therefore, Paul appeals to Caesar (11), which is his right as a Roman citizen.
After the trial Agrippa arrives in Caesarea to pay formal honours to the new Governor (13). He is descended from the Herod who killed the children in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill Jesus, and he has inherited his ancestor’s character. He is called king Agrippa, but he is really only a figurehead. He reigns at the pleasure of, and takes his orders from Festus. Yet Festus wants Agrippa’s help and cooperation to keep the peace in Israel. Since his family has been ruling Jews from the time of his grandfather, Agrippa knows much about the Jewish faith, and may even have adopted Judaism himself. Festus knows very little about Judaism, but needs to have something to write in a letter to Caesar explaining the charges against Paul and why he has appealed to Caesar (27). Thus he asks Agrippa’s advice.
In chapter 26, Paul is permitted to speak for himself (1). There are no accusers here, and it is not a trial. It is an opportunity to explain himself to Felix and Agrippa. It is also an opportunity to explain the Christian faith to these two men, who have power to make decisions about the official policy toward Christianity in Israel.
Grandson of Herod the Great, Agrippa is a third generation ruler in Israel, and knows much about the Jewish faith (3). He will be able to confirm the conclusion of Felix, that Paul has broken no Roman laws, and that, in the eyes of Rome, the conflict between Paul and the Jews is a dispute over points in the Jewish religion, and, therefore, no concern to, Rome except that, as a Roman citizen, Paul has the right to their protection.
Paul begins with his own identity as a Jew, which reinforces Felix’s conclusion that he is involved in a theological dispute with the Jews, not a crime against Rome. He makes a point of saying he was a Pharisee, “the most straitest sect of our religion” (5). He is being judged, or, accused by the Jews, because he believes in the hope and promise God made to Israel (6). That hope is not for an independent Israel through violent revolution against Rome. It is the hope of the resurrection (8).
Paul has not always been of this persuasion. He was in fact a persecutor of the Christians, and through his efforts, many of them were put to death (10). He came to this faith through a miraculous appearance of Christ, which he relates in verses 12-18, and he became obedient to the vision, preaching repentance, turning to God, and doing works meet for repentance, (20). He believes that everything he teaches is taught in the Old Testament and is a settled part of the faith of Israel. He asserts this belief three times. In verse 6 he says he stands and is judged for “the hope of the promise made of God unto our fathers.” In verse 20, he preaches what the Jews profess to believe, which is repentance, turning to God, and doing works meet (suitable) for repentance. In verses 22-23, Paul refers to Moses and the prophets again, claiming his beliefs are in accord with them. He refers to statements such as Genesis 3:15 and Isaiah 53, which the Jews themselves believe are prophecies about the Messiah. The difference between Paul and his accusers is that Paul believes Jesus is the fulfillment of these prophecies, but the Jews believe He is not. Paul’s statements are important, and must be understood by anyone who wants to understand Paul, the New Testament, and the entire Bible. Everything Paul believes and preaches is taught in the Old Testament. Jesus fulfills those teachings, and Paul simply invites people to accept the Messiah.
Festus’ statement in verse 24 means Paul spends so much time studying the tiny details of religion he has driven himself crazy. In other words, he has become a little fanatical about them. He should take a break for a while and reacquaint himself with practical matters. But Paul insists he is not “mad.” He speaks words of truth and soberness (25). He even calls on Agrippa for support (27). This does not mean he asks Agrippa for help; instead he asks if the king believes the prophets. Paul even answers for him, “I know that thou believest.”
The king responds in the well known words, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” (28). As many have noted, Agrippa may mean something like, do you think you can make me believe in Christ in the short time of this interview? If that is his meaning, the answer he expects is, “no.” Of course, he may mean exactly what the words say: he may actually be almost persuaded. But, almost believing is the same as not believing, and Agrippa remains in unbelief.
The chapter ends with two telling statements. First, Paul says he wishes all who hear him this day would be such as he is, meaning, Christians (29). He wishes they would turn to Christ and be saved, for he knows their sins, and desires forgiveness and a home in Heaven for them. Second, is the statement in verses 31 and 32 that Paul has done nothing worthy of death, or even of bonds. The meaning of this is made clear by the words of Agrippa; “This man might have been set at liberty, if he had not appealed to Caesar” (32). In other words, Paul is completely innocent. The Roman governor and the king of Israel know he has committed no crime and should be set free. But his appeal to Caesar cannot be revoked, therefore, he must remain a prisoner, and be sent to Rome.
Festus determines to send Paul to Rome by ship. He, along with other prisoners, are given into the custody of a contingent of Roman soldiers commanded by a centurion named Julius (1). Luke is with them, as we note from the use of “we” in verse 1. Aristarchus is also on board to go with Paul (2). The ship leaves the port of Adramyttium, near Jerusalem, but picks up Paul and the others at Caesarea. It sails north overnight and reaches Sidon the next day; a journey of about seventy miles. Julius already knows Paul to be an honest man, and grants him liberty to visit friends in Sidon.
Leaving Sidon, in verse 4, they attempt to continue their intended course along the coast of Asia, but the winds are blowing against them as they attempt to sail west. Since a wind powered ship cannot sail directly into the wind, it must take a zig zag course, first sailing north west, then southwest, repeating this as long as the wind is contrary. This is called, beating into the wind, and requires much work from the crew. Thus, rather than staying close to the Asian coast as planned, they sail under Cyprus, meaning they sail close to the north side of the island, letting the land shield them from some of the wind. This makes the trip a little easier, but still requires a slow, zig zag course. After several days, they are able to turn north to dock at Myra of Lycia, an Asian harbour town about 100 miles south of Philadelphia and about the same distance east of the island of Rhodes.
They change ships in Myra, and, after many days of hard sailing, make it to Cnidus, about 200 miles to the west. We can imagine the difficulty of this part of the journey when we remember it took the other ship less than twenty-four hours to go seventy miles under a favourable wind, but it has taken this ship many days to go 200 miles in a contrary wind.
The ship’s captain decides to go south and use Crete as a windbreak as the previous ship used Cyprus (7). But the wind is still very strong and they are “hardly passing” the island, meaning, they are passing it with great difficulty. Finally, the ship turns into the harbour of Fairhaven on the southern side of the island. There, the exhausted crew gets a rest of much time (9). The “fast” of verse 9 refers to the Day of Atonement, which means it is early October. It is considered dangerous for the small ships of the Roman era to be on the water after that time, and Paul warns the owner and captain of the ship that going to sea now will bring much damage of the lading and the ship, and to their own lives (10). But the centurion takes the advice of the owner and captain, partly because no one wants to spend the winter in Fairhaven (11, 12). So, with a soft south wind in their favour, they set sail for Phoenix on the south western shore of Crete.
The first part of the journey is made under pleasant conditions. “But not long after there arose… a tempestuous wind, called Euroclydon” (14). This is a strong gale with winds from the north east, and the ship is in great danger because of it. The captain would like to return to Fairhaven, which is east of them, but the wind, coming from the east makes that impossible. All they can do is let the wind let drive them westward (15), and hope they can turn to shore at the next harbour, Phoenix. The high winds and waves make it impossible to turn the ship toward Phoenix, so they attempt to land on the small island of Clauda (16). It is difficult to get the ship safely to the shore, and when they finally get close enough to see the beach, they find quicksand rather than solid ground, and are forced to let the wind blow them past it (17). Large waves and heavy rains mean water is getting into the ship. Realising they are in danger of sinking, they cast sodden cargo overboard to lighten the load. The cargo is soon followed by much of the essential equipment of the ship (tackling). Since navigation is done by using the sun and stars as reference points, the lack of them (20), due to dense storm clouds, means the people are lost at sea in a storm that threatens to batter the ship into splinters. Luke, recording the event says, “all hope that we should be saved was then taken away” (20).
On the fourteenth night they are able to determine that the water is getting more and more shallow, and the sailors believe they are approaching land. Rather than be driven onto what might be a rocky reef, they wisely drop anchors from the stern of the ship, and hope for morning (29).
It seems the sailors are fasting. Perhaps this is because it is too difficult to eat in the storm, but it seems more likely they are fasting and praying to their “gods” for deliverance. It is not Poseidon who delivers them. It is the God for whom Paul is in chains, who gives them the message of deliverance (21-26). God appears to Paul at night and tells him all the people on board will be saved, but the ship will not. They will become castaways “upon a certain island,” but they will live (26).
The next morning they sight land. Taking up the anchors, they lower the rudders back into the water, for they had been raised up to keep the anchor ropes from breaking them. The mainsail is raised. This, along with the rudders, allows them to steer the boat, which they aim for the beach in the hope of grounding the ship there so they won’t have to swim through the crashing waves and fierce undertow of the storm surge. But the boat runs aground too far from the beach, and the men will have to swim for shore (43). As Paul said, they lose the boat, which is battered to pieces by the waves.
The soldiers want to kill the prisoners, since a horrible death awaits them if any escape. Julius will not allow it, and tells all who can, to swim to the shore. “And the rest, some on boards, and some on broken pieces of the ship” make it to the beach. “Ands so it came to pass, that they escaped all safe to land” (44). They are on the island of Melita (modern Malta), just south of Sicily and Italy.
The Greeks defined a barbarian as anyone who did not speak Greek and share the Greek culture. Romans, who tried to emulate and perpetuate the Greeks held the same view of outsiders. In spite of their barbarian status, the people of Melita receive the castaways with “no little kindness” (2) building a fire to help them get warm and dry. Paul, helping to gather sticks for the fire, is bitten by a snake (3, 4). Much ink has been used in discussions of whether the snake is poisonous or not, but, the people of Melita, who would know the snakes of the island seem to believe it is, and the bite is punishment from the gods (4). They expect to see him swell or die (6). When that does not happen, they suppose him to be a god.
Publius is the chief man of the island, and lives nearby. His father is sick (8), and Paul lays hands on him and asks God to heal him. It pleases God to heal the man, and many others on the island, who come to Paul (8, 9). It is surprising that we read of no jealous pagan priests opposing Paul, and no Jews accusing him of blasphemy. Instead, we read of the people honouring him and giving them provisions during their three months on Melita, and for their journey when they depart on a ship from Alexamdria, Egypt, which has also wintered on Melita (11). The healings are surely supplemented with preaching and teaching by Paul during the winter, and the Church of Malta traces its founding to Paul and his ministry on the island. Thus, the trials in Jerusalem and Caesarea, the imprisonment, and the shipwreck allow the Gospel to be preached in a new land, souls to be saved, and a Church to be established.
They leave Melita in early February. It is still a time of danger on the sea, but since their next port of call, Syracuse on the large island of Sicily, is only about 100 miles north, the ship’s captain decides to leave, and Julius and his party are on board.
They remain in Syracuse for three days, sail on to Rhegium, and, from there, to Putoli, about a hundred miles south of Rome. They remain in Putoli for seven days, and Paul finds brethren there to tarry with. Julius is probably resting his men and getting supplies and equipment for the remainder of the trip to Rome, which will be accomplished on foot (15).
During the stay in Putoli, Christians get word to the Church in Rome that Paul is coming to the city. Julius takes them on the Appian Way, and Christians who have walked south to meet him begin to find him at the town of Appii Forum, about forty miles south of Rome. Still more greet him in Three Taverns about thirty miles south of Rome. Others probably join him as he gets closer to Rome. Verse 15 says when Paul saw them he “thanked God, and took courage.”
Even Paul must be wondering what awaits him in Rome. Emperors are often despicably wicked, and even good ones cannot be relied on for justice. Prison, the Colosseum, or torture could be Paul’s lot in Rome. But the presence of other Christians cheers him, as does the comparative peace of the Church in Rome, which he probably hears about from the Roman Christians. Neither Jews nor Romans persecute the Church in the city at this time, which is estimated to be early in the year 60 A.D.
In Rome the prisoners are delivered to the captain of the guard (16). Paul, probably due to Julius’ relating Paul’s behaviour during the trip, is allowed to live in a private house, rather than in prison. Even in the house he is chained to a Roman soldier, so he is not at complete liberty.
He requests the chief Jewish leaders of the city to meet him in his rented house (17). As he explains his case to them he is attempting to learn who, if any, will be accusing him before Caesar. But the leaders profess no knowledge of his case (21). They also add that none of their brethren, who have visited Rome from Jerusalem have “shewed or spake any harm of thee.” Apparently the accusations against Paul were part of a plot by the upper echelon of Jewish religion in Jerusalem, not the expression of the general public opinion. Also, it seems to have been conducted in relative secrecy, otherwise Jews from Jerusalem would have told of it in Rome.
The Jews of Rome have heard of Christianity, describing it as a sect that is spoken against everywhere, and desiring to hear Paul’s defense of it (22). Coming together in his rented house, they listen to Paul’s teaching “from morning till evening” (23). Some, of course, are not convinced, but some believe (24). Hearing their dissension, Paul, with great sadness quotes the words of Isaiah 6, in which God calls Isaiah to be a prophet, and, at the same time, tells him the Jews will not listen to his words or repent of their sin. Paul then states that salvation is sent to the Gentiles, and that they will hear it (28). Paul is able to live in peace in Rome for two years. During this time he preaches the Gospel freely and without interference (31).
This means he lives in Rome during the years of 60 and 61 A.D. During this time Rome tolerates Christianity as it tolerates other religions, as long as the people of those religions are willing to live peaceably under Roman rule. We note that Acts does not record the execution of Paul, which we know from 2 Timothy happens in Rome. This leads many to believe Paul is released by Caesar, and allowed to travel west, preaching the Gospel as far as Spain.
Meanwhile, Roman toleration of Christians begins to weaken. Christians will not worship the Roman emperors or participate in Roman games and festivals. This is not a problem until the increasing number of Christians makes their actions conspicuous to the Romans, especially in the city of Rome. Christian teachings about equality and justice cause Romans to fear slaves will revolt and women will leave their families. Pagan priests fear the loss of income and influence, and rulers fear the Roman system may be seriously weakened. Thus begins a Roman dislike of Christians, which slowly grows stronger. When Rome burns in the year 64, Nero claims the fire was set by Christians, who now become the target of official persecution. Peter is in Rome during, or shortly after the fire, and is executed there in 65 or 66 A.D..
For some reason, Paul returns to Rome after Peter’s death. Perhaps he feels he needs to help the Church bear the burden of persecution. Perhaps he feels an Apostle should share the persecution with them. Whatever the reason, Paul returns to Rome, and, in the last letter to come from his pen, he writes:
“the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge shall give to me at that day; and not to me only, but to all them that loved his appearing” (2 Tim 4:6-8).
In the winter of the year 69, soon after writing these words, Paul receives his crown.