Saturday, November 15. Acts 28 – Romans 3

Paul’s voyage to Rome is a fitting end to this encouraging book. Despite persecution and opposition, God’s people, executing God’s will, simply cannot be stopped.

Remember Jesus’ arrest and trial. From his healing of the High Priest’s servant (Luke 22:31), to his defiant confrontation and condemnation of those who would arrest him, the Jews who tried him, and Pilate who condemned him, there is no mistake who is in charge of the whole affair: it is Jesus.

Likewise, under the protecting hand of God, Paul has been in charge of his life. He confronts Felix concerning his sins, pointedly corrects Festus, and boldly tries to convert Herod Agrippa II. Despite the fact that he is a prisoner, Paul advises the captain (without success) on his sailing dates, encourages the seamen regarding their future, advises the centurion regarding the activities of the soldiers, and encourages all to eat. After their shipwreck, Paul builds a fire for the survivors, shakes off a viper as if it were nothing, is welcomed into the home of a nearby official and heals the official’s father. By the time they get to Rome, Paul seems fairly free to do as he pleases.

And he does.

Though under house arrest, it is his house, hired with money from . . . where? God has provided. For two years he preaches the word boldly without hindrance.

If Acts was written for a Roman official considering the case of Paul, the message is clear: Be careful what you do to this man (and those like him). The cause he is pressing is of God, and nothing can stop it.

Do you believe that?

Tuesday, November 11. Acts 16 – 18

Second missionary journey

Acts 18 ends Paul’s second missionary journey.  It also provides us with some points with which to date the journey.

Luke mentions that the emperor Claudius expelled all the Jews from Rome.  The writer Suetonius mentions this edict and it likely dates from 49-50 A.D.  The date then for Paul’s arrival in Corinth would be after the edict.

Luke also mentions Gallio.  Gallio was the brother of Seneca the Younger who was the tutor of the boy Nero who would become emperor in 54 A.D.  From an inscription at Delphi, we know that Gallio was the proconsul of Achaia in 53 A.D. and he only served one year.  And so, the events of chapter 18 occur about that time.

Chapter 18 also introduces us to an idea that will be dealt with in more detail in chapter 19.  Evidently, there were preachers in the ancient world who knew the teaching and baptism of John the Baptist.  Apollos evidently knew that teaching, and, as far as it went, he knew the correct teaching about Jesus.  But there was something he didn’t know.  Under John’s baptism, people were made ready for Jesus when he came.  Baptised for the forgiveness of sins, they would await the Messiah and when he came, would follow him and eventually, become the first citizens of the Kingdom of God.  It’s why you don’t read of the Apostles being baptized by Jesus again.

But after Jesus came, this baptism would not do.  It was performed in expectation of something that had already happened.

Seems like a small thing, right?  And yet, it was important enough for Priscilla and her husband Aquila to “correct” his teaching to know the way of God more adequately.  If God has spoken specifically about a matter, it’s important for us to know and practice it as He has willed.

Monday, November 10. Acts 13 – 15

First missionary journey

Acts 14 opens with the words: “At Iconium, Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue.”

Why?

Didn’t they know they were just going to stir up trouble? That had certainly been their experience up to now. So why do it?

Because these people would be the best for constituting the Church in a new area. They worshiped the same God. They read the same scripture. They practiced the same moral ethic. All they needed was to become Christians.

But if they worshiped the same God, read the same scripture, and practiced the same moral ethic, weren’t they already Christians?

Evidently not. What was needed was a profession of faith in Jesus as the son of God, a submission to Jesus, his lifestyle and teaching, and a uniting with Jesus through baptism. To be a Christian, those things are still needed today, and our best prospects for bringing people to Christ are those who may already be near, just not there.

Sunday, November 9. Acts 9 – 12

Prejudice is difficult to overcome, and some prejudice is always with us.

The Jewish Christians of the Jerusalem church had grown up believing they – Jews – were God’s chosen people. Their prejudice was that only Jews could be Christians. As you move through the New Testament story, that prejudice dies hard. Actually, in the early church, it never really died at all.

When Peter returned to Jerusalem he was accosted by Christians who challenged his faithfulness because he went into the home of a gentile and ate with them. Peter had violated Jewish custom.

In Acts 11 Peter relates the story of Cornelius and it is the third time we’ve read it in two chapters. His point then was that God had opened the door for all people to become Christians no matter their race. The church certainly seemed to accept it (verse 18), but as we will see in chapter 15, accepting it mentally is one thing. Accepting it in your heart is another.

Our prejudices are conditioned by our experiences and influences and customs also play a large role. We can’t keep our prejudices from coming to the forefront of our lives, but we can learn to recognize them and we should ask ourselves if these prejudices keep us from doing the will of God (as they obviously kept the Jerusalem church from being evangelistic). We can also ask ourselves if they keep us from living like Jesus. An affirmative answer to either of these questions makes getting rid of that prejudice a requirement of (and for) salvation.

Saturday, November 8. Acts 5 – 8

Acts 8 contains two “conversion” stories, accounts of people becoming Christians. The first has to do with Samaritans becoming Christians. The second with an Ethiopian official. Each account is worthy of a sermon, but we will concentrate on a question from the Samaritan story: Why didn’t the Samaritans receive the Holy Spirit when they were baptized? It is, after all, what we would expect given Peter’s sermon and statement in Acts 2:38. Yet, in the case of the Samaritans, it did not happen.

Some have speculated that they did receive the Holy Spirit – just not the miraculous measure of the Spirit which could only be bestowed by the apostles.

There are problems with this view. First, the text plainly says they did not receive the Spirit. Second, the Bible does not teach, in any place, that there are “measures” of the spirit – miraculous or otherwise. You either have the Spirit or you don’t. Third, the apostles never get to decide who can perform miracles. The gifts of the Spirit are decided by the Spirit and the Spirit alone. Fourth, if the Samaritans performed miracles after receiving the Spirit, the text is silent about the matter.

So why the interval of time?

The apostles were given the task of making sure the gospel, intended for all mankind, moved from its roots among the Jewish people to the rest of the world. It was to be a programmatic movement: first to Jews, then to those with Jewish roots (Samaritans), then to the gentiles (see Acts :8). As the foundation of the Church, this was Apostle responsibility. Yet, for at least three years, the gospel had not moved past Judea. When it does move, it is not carried by an Apostle, but by Phillip – a servant of the Church certainly, but not an Apostle.

The Apostles would have to sanction this spread to the Samaritans, a result unlikely to be accepted by the Jewish church. And so, the Holy Spirit was withheld until the Apostles could arrive from Jerusalem and place their imprimatur upon the movement. It was God’s way of forcing the issue, an issue that would not have had to be forced if the Apostles had been doing their job. Significantly, the Apostles, as a group, begin to lose their prominence here as leaders in the spread of the Kingdom of God.

Friday, November 8. Acts 26 – 28

Chapter twenty-six is the longest defense of Paul’s life in this book.

His hearers are not nobodies. Herod Agrippa (the second) is the son of the Herod Agrippa who put James to death and tried to kill Peter. He is the great-grandson of the Herod who killed the little babies when Jesus was born. Festus was the Roman governor. Bernice was Herod Agrippa II’s sister, and if you get the feeling there was something untoward in their relationship, you’d probably be right for the rumor mill in their own time operated at full tilt about their affair.

Paul is not a nobody. All of his accusers know that Paul was once one of them – and doctrinally, still is. Paul is on trial because he believes in the resurrection of the dead – specifically, Jesus’ resurrection. All of his accusers know that Paul was an ardent persecutor of Christianity.

But something changed him, and he relates the cause of the change in his speech.

Festus is a newcomer to Palestine and knows nothing of these matters, but Paul knows Agrippa knows about them all, and he appeals to Agrippa’s belief in the Jewish faith.

Paul’s tact, and you should not miss it, is to essentially ask Agrippa: “How good a Jew are you?” Agrippa wants to answer “A good one!” But if he does, he must embrace Paul’s faith. That is the argument Paul uses. Rather than an answer Paul, Agrippa skirts the issue, knowing where Paul is leading, but proclaiming instead Paul’s innocence.

But Paul is not to go free. The story is not about Paul. It is about God, and it is God’s will that Paul go to Rome – on the emperor’s dime.

Thursday, November 7. Acts 23 – 25

The high degree of Christian ethics is highlighted in chapter twenty-three, especially when compared with the duplicity of the Jews in the next chapter.

Paul, before the Sanhedrin (who knows him well) asserts that he has fulfilled his duty to God in all good conscience.

Such an assertion is too much for the high priest, Ananias, who orders Paul to be hit on the mouth.

Paul reprimands him for this act of injustice and calls him a hypocrite (a “white-washed wall”).

Then Paul is reprimanded for insulting the high priest, at which point Paul apologized. He didn’t know he was the high priest.

Why not?

We simply don’t know. Perhaps Paul had been away so long from Jerusalem he did not know who the high priest was. Perhaps Paul knew, but was making a comment regarding the unfitness of Ananias to be high priest. After all, it was to have been a hereditary office yet Ananias had been appointed by Herod of Chalcis, the brother of Herod Agrippa I (who put James to death in Acts 12). Herod of Chalcis was such a cruel and despicable fellow that he had been sent to Rome a few years before to give an accounting of himself to Caesar. He has been called one of the most unworthy men to hold the office of high priest.

Worthy or not, however, he was the high priest and Paul had insulted him. So, Paul apologized and when he does, Luke points out that while the high priest may not have been a close observer of the Law, Paul was.

Whether other people do what is right or not, whether they are ethical people or not, is irrelevant to our own behavior. We must not be guilty of breaking the law: neither God’s nor the law of the land.

Wednesday, November 6. Acts 20 – 22

As you read chapter twenty-one, you will see numerous echoes of Jesus’ life. It would be going too far to equate Paul with Jesus, but it is within the purpose of the book to show that Jesus’ disciples followed in Jesus’ footsteps.

Thus we see Paul anxious to go to Jerusalem (compare Luke 9:51 with Acts 20:16), just as Jesus was. Paul is determined to go there despite the fact that prison and hardships await him (compare Luke 13:33 with Acts 20:23), just as Jesus knew that death awaited him there. The hardships awaiting them were both according to the will of God (Luke 24:45ff and Acts 21:14). Paul’s experience in the temple mirrors that of Jesus: he is falsely accused and convicted by rumor. Through it all, the reader understands that like Jesus, Paul was innocent.

Chapter twenty-one illustrates well the tight-rope leadership sometimes has to walk. Paul arrived with a large contribution for the relief of the Jerusalem church. Neither Luke nor the leadership of the church mention it. Something more momentous is afoot. The rumor is the Paul tells Jews they don’t have to obey the law nor adhere to Jewish customs. This was untrue, of course. Paul had even taken a vow according to Jewish law (Acts 18:18). What Paul had taught was that keeping Jewish customs did not merit the blessing of God. But folks tend to believe what they want to believe regardless of the facts.

The Elders ask Paul to undergo purification rites (he had, after all, been in gentile territory) and pay for the vows of four men. The cost was considerable and Paul is being asked to foot the bill. The whole purpose was to scotch the chance of trouble in the church. Paul, to his credit, realized that such needed to be done for the sake of unity. Unfortunately, things went down hill from there.

Did the Elders and Paul do right? Absolutely. Paul could have asserted his freedom not to do it, but Paul was not in bondage to his freedom. He had written just a few years before: “19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible” (1 Corinthians 9:19). Sometimes we have to take a step back as individuals so we can go forward together as the people of God.

Sunday, October 27. 2 Thessalonians 3; Acts 19

Acts 19 is the only example of re-baptism in the New Testament and perhaps here is a good place for a refresher look at the baptism in general.

“Washing” was a vital part of the approach to God in the Old Testament. Everyone was required to do it and priests especially lest they be struck dead by God. When John the baptist came preaching in the first century, he commanded it as a requisite for forgiveness of sins and preparation for the coming kingdom. Even Jesus submitted to it. Later, Jesus commanded it as a requirement to be his disciple and to receive salvation. Peter commands it for forgiveness of sins and in order to receive the Holy Spirit. Paul said it was necessary to union with Christ and entry into God’s family. It was an adult action submitted to by people old enough to profess faith in Christ and able to determine the direction of their own lives.

But why did the Ephesians have to be “re-baptized”?

Note how specific this gets. John required baptism in order to be ready for the coming kingdom and to receive the Holy Spirit when the Spirit was finally given. Those who received it looked forward to the coming of these two things. But these believers did not have the Spirit. Why not? The best answer is that they had received the baptism after those things had already come. They were baptized in anticipation of something that had already happened. The baptism was administered in faith that these events would happen, not that they already had. Thus, the baptism was invalid.

Though this is the only case we are told of, the story alone underscores the importance of baptism and doing it correctly.

Tuesday, October 22. Acts 15-18

Acts 15 is a critical moment in Luke’s story. The controversy related in this account will plague the church for years to come. The issue is the focal point of Galatians and Romans and Ephesians.

Luke has already told us about the extreme prejudice of the Jerusalem church against anyone not a Jew. Chapter ten reveals a prejudice shared by Peter and the Jerusalem church: if you are not first a Jew, you cannot be a Christian. Christianity is only for Jews. By the end of Acts chapter eleven, you get the impression the matter has been laid to rest, but prejudice dies hard. The church in Antioch has been home to Christians of a variety of backgrounds for several years. Hard-liners from the Jerusalem church arrive in Antioch and lay down the law: If you are not a Jew, you cannot be saved.

Paul and Silas and a number of Christians go to Jerusalem to dispute this matter. The debate is intense. Peter testifies from his own experience that this cannot be so. Paul and Barnabas testify from theirs. But the clincher comes from James, who puts the matter to rest with a quote from Amos 9. In other words, the Lord’s word is the final word.

Acts 15 reveals that the early Church wasn’t any more “perfect” than any church today: pettiness and prejudice, as well as the struggle to control others is perpetual problem. The final word, however, is not that of those in “authority,” nor does it consist of the testimony or experience of the principals. It is, and must be, the word of God. We need not think, however, that this will make all the issues go away, as Paul’s letters attest. Most importantly, because these differences persist, the Apostles do not tell the proponents: “get over it.” Rather, they tell everyone that compromises must be made to show respect for the traditions of others. Our Church today would do well to remember these lessons.