Do the Three Accounts of Paul’s Conversion in Acts Contradict Each Other?

The conversion of Saul/Paul is so important to the author of the Book of Acts that he presents the story three times (Acts 9, 22, 26). Each version is different, and this fact has led some critics to say that the accounts are contradictory. But is that necessarily the case?

First, we must note that there are several common elements in the three versions:

  • Saul is on his way to Damascus to gather up Christians.
  • He sees an intense light.
  • The Lord asks why Saul is persecuting him.
  • Saul asks who the speaker is.
  • Jesus reveals that it is he.

What are the differences? Darrel Bock, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible) , writes:

The biggest differences in the accounts have to do with whether the men traveling with Saul see the light and hear nothing (22:9) or stand speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one (9:7). . . . Another difference is that Ananias does not appear at all in the Acts 26 account. . . . Another key difference between the accounts is that Saul does not mention his call to reach the Gentiles in the account given in Acts 9, whereas he shares this detail in Acts 22 and 26.

Bock then argues that each of these differences can be reconciled. About the different experiences of the men traveling with Saul,

The elements at play here can be reconciled (Witherington 1998, 312– 13), as for instance in the following way: The men hear a sound, but it is not intelligible to them; they also see a light but not Jesus himself. Only Saul sees someone in the light and is able to discern a speaking voice in the sound. Saul’s companions experience something less than the full event, which means that the appearance is neither an entirely private vision nor a fully disclosed public event. It is a public event whose details are for one man alone, Saul of Tarsus.

John Polhill, in Acts, vol. 26, The New American Commentary , agrees with Bock:

Paul’s traveling companions served as authenticators that what happened to Paul was an objective event, not merely a rumbling of his inner psyche. They heard a sound, but they did not see the vision of Jesus. Acts 22:9 says that they saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who spoke with Paul. The two accounts are not contradictory but underline the same event. Paul’s companions heard a sound and saw a light. They could verify that an objective heavenly manifestation took place. They did not participate in the heavenly communication, however, neither seeing the vision of Jesus nor hearing the words spoken to Paul. The revelation was solely to Paul.

Regarding Ananias being left out of Acts 26, Bock writes, “This may be in part because the book has already mentioned him in detail twice, in Acts 9 and 22. Luke chooses not to be redundant on this detail, and so he provides a telescoped account.”

Regarding Saul not mentioning his call to the Gentiles in Acts 9, “Ananias notes in 9:15 that Saul would be called to a Gentile mission, so we probably have another example of telescoping. Another possibility is that Luke chose not to note this detail in his third-person narrative because the Gentile mission had not yet taken place, but this argument is somewhat weakened by the mention of the mission to Ananias. In any case, Saul’s not mentioning his Gentile mission in Acts 9 is simply an outcome of Luke’s literary choice, the exact reason for which is not clear.”

Bock concludes:

As is common in ancient retellings, each version has some variation so that each adds something to the reader’s understanding. Witherington (1998, 303– 15) has a helpful discussion of the relationship between these three accounts. He stresses that all of them are summaries and are not intended to provide comprehensive information.

Commentary on Acts 9 (Conversion of Saul/Paul)

As chapter 9 begins, Saul continues his persecution of Christians. Not content to root out Christianity in Jerusalem, Saul receives permission from the high priest to go to Damascus and bring back Jesus’ followers for trial in Jerusalem. Damascus is a city located 135 miles northeast of Jerusalem in the Roman province of Syria. John Polhill notes, in Acts, vol. 26, The New American Commentary , that

Damascus was an ancient city, dating back at least into the second millennium b.c. It was an oasis city on the border of the Arabian desert and along the main trade route linking Egypt and Mesopotamia. From 64 b.c. it had been under Roman influence and belonged to the association of ten Hellenistic cities known as the Decapolis. It had a large Jewish population, as is attested by the many Jews Josephus reported were killed there during the Jewish war with Rome.

As Saul nears Damascus at noon (Acts 22:6), a bright light shines on him and the other men traveling with him. Paul falls to the ground and hears a voice:

“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do” (Acts 9:4-6).

The men with him hear a voice, but see no one. Saul rises from the ground, but he is now blind. His companions take him into Damascus, and he stays at the house of a man called Judas on the main road (Straight) through the heart of the city. For three days he neither eats nor drinks, likely contemplating what Jesus said to him.

Clinton Arnold, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary) , writes that Jesus’ question to Saul

presupposes that Jesus is resurrected and alive (he is not in the grave), that he is in a close relationship with the people who embrace him as Messiah and Lord (he is not a messianic pretender), and that by persecuting Christians, Saul is actually persecuting the Lord and standing in the way of what God is accomplishing in fulfillment of Old Testament promises. What a shattering realization!

Darrell Bock adds, in Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament :

Jesus tells Saul that the persecution is really directed against himself, who is appearing to Saul as a heavenly glorious figure. Luke 10:16 indicates how serious a charge persecuting Jesus is. It means to be against God. Would Saul really want to challenge heaven? Larkin (1995: 139) sees a reminder of Gamaliel’s remarks in Acts 5:39 about which side God is on (also Williams 1990: 169).

In verse 10, a Christian named Ananias receives a vision of Jesus. In the vision, the Lord tells Ananias to go to Saul at Judas’ house and lay hands on him so that he can see again. Jesus has already given Saul a vision that Ananias would come to him.

Ananias, however, protests that Saul has done great harm to the church in Jerusalem. Jesus explains to Ananias, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.  For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16). Saul is to become a great missionary for the church, especially to Gentiles. Just as Saul persecuted Christians, he will suffer great persecution at the hands of his former Jewish allies.

Ananias obeys and goes to Saul. He lays hands on Saul and immediately Saul’s blindness is healed. Saul also receives the Holy Spirit and is baptized. Luke reports that Saul spends several days learning about Jesus from the Christians in Damascus. He then proclaims to the synagogues in Damascus that Jesus is the “Son of God.” Recall that synagogues “served as a central meeting place for local Jewish communities. The synagogue played a complementary role to the temple by providing a venue for local services of word and prayer, as well as a forum for communal assemblies, study, hospitality and even religious courts” ( NIV Archaeological Study Bible ).

What does Saul mean when he pronounces Jesus to be the “Son of God”? Clinton Arnold writes:

A central part of Saul’s teaching is declaring Jesus as the Son of God. This does not mean that Jesus is God’s Son in any sort of physical sense. The background of this phrase needs to be understood in its Old Testament context of God’s special relationship with the anointed king of Israel. The Lord had a unique relationship with David and promised him that one of his descendants would be king of Israel in the future, that he would have a glorious and eternal reign, and that he would enjoy a relationship of sonship to the Father: ‘I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son.’ To announce that Jesus is the Son of God is to proclaim the arrival of the anointed king (the ‘Messiah’) who will reign on the throne of David.

At some point in the future, probably during a second visit to Damascus, the Jewish authorities in Damascus plot to kill Saul. He discovers the plot and his disciples lower him in a basket down the city wall at night. Saul/Paul himself describes this incident in 2 Corinthians 11:32, although Paul places the blame primarily on the government authorities. Most likely, the Jews of Damascus and the government authorities both wanted him dead. His preaching undoubtedly was causing civil unrest among the Jewish population in Damascus.

Saul escapes Damascus and travels to Jerusalem. He attempts to join with the believers in the Jerusalem church, but they are afraid of him because of his former reputation. Barnabas, who Luke introduced in the Acts 4, takes Saul to the apostles and vouches for Saul’s conversion. The apostles accept Saul, and he is, therefore, accepted by all the believers in Jerusalem.

Saul then starts preaching in the Hellenist synagogues, just as Stephen had done years before. In a great twist of irony, the Hellenist Jews plot to kill Saul. Just a few years before, Saul had participated in the stoning of Stephen! The believers in Jerusalem learn of the plot and send Saul away before the Hellenists succeed. Ultimately, Saul returns to his hometown, Tarsus, in Cilicia. Clinton Arnold explains:

To go to Tarsus is to go home for Saul. He may have had family and friends living there since he spent his earliest years there before being sent to Jerusalem for his education. The extensive Jewish population of the area along with the many Gentile sympathizers to Judaism provide an ideal mission field for him to continue fulfilling his divinely given commission. He probably spends between three and four years in Tarsus and the neighboring cities of Cilicia before going to Antioch in 39 or 40 A.D.

After Saul leaves Jerusalem, Luke reports that persecution effectively ended for a time in Judea, Galilee, and Samaria. The church lived in peace and multiplied.

Saul’s conversion is a major turning point in the early church. John Polhill explains its significance:

Paul the persecutor was stopped dead in his tracks on the Damascus road. The risen Jesus showed himself to Paul; and with this confirmation that the Christian claims were indeed true, Paul was completely turned from persecutor to witness. Only one category describes Paul’s experience, a category not uncommon in Acts. It was a miracle, the result of direct divine action. When all is said and done, both Acts and Paul give strikingly similar pictures of his conversion. Both speak of Paul’s former life as persecutor of the church (1 Cor 15:9), even use the same vocabulary to describe how he ‘ravaged it’ (Gal 1:13). Both speak of his intense zeal (Phil 3:6). Both place the conversion in Damascus (Gal 1:17). Both describe the experience as a vision of the risen Lord, a Christophany (1 Cor 15:8; 9:1; cf. 2 Cor 4:6). Both speak of his testifying to Christ as ‘God’s Son’ immediately after his conversion (Gal 1:16; Acts 9:20). For both it was a radical turning (Phil 3:6–7). For Paul and for Luke, a totally different man emerged from that vision of the risen Lord; and that is conversion.

What Happened to Verse 37 in Acts 8?

If you’re reading the NIV, ESV, or other modern English translation of the New Testament (NT), you will notice that Acts 8:37 is either omitted or bracketed. There will be a footnote saying that early manuscripts do not contain this verse. So what’s going on here? How could there be a verse 37 that once existed, but now has been deleted?

The first thing to understand is that verse numbers were not assigned to the biblical texts until the year 1551. One hundred years earlier, the printing press had been invented, and there was a subsequent explosion in printed copies of the Bible. At that time, the scholars who were producing printed Greek NT’s or translating the Greek NT into other languages only had a small number of ancient manuscripts to use in their translation, and these documents were primarily dated from the ninth through twelfth centuries.

These manuscripts from the ninth to twelfth centuries contained the text that was assigned to Acts 8:37. Here is the reading: “Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ The eunuch answered, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’” For the next five hundred years, verse 37 was included in most Bibles.

As we fast-forward to the twentieth century, archaeologists began discovering much older Greek NT manuscripts dating as far back as the second century. The older documents dated from the second through fourth centuries did not contain the text from Acts 8:37 (the text first shows up in a Coptic translation dated to the late fourth and fifth century). So, given the discrepancies between the earlier and later manuscripts, scholars must decide which variant most likely represents the original Book of Acts written in the first century. The consensus seems to be that the original version did not contain the words from verse 37.

Darrell Bock explains that verse 37 “appears to be a scribal addition, likely motivated by the fact that the original text of Acts does not recount the eunuch making a confession of faith.” Bruce Metzger adds that the phrase “Jesus Christ” is not a Lukan expression and thus must have been added by someone else.

Even though scholars don’t believe Luke wrote these words, they do believe that the contents of verse 37 likely reflect the practice of second century Christians.

Commentary on Acts 8 (Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch)

In chapter 8 of Acts, Stephen’s death sparks an intense persecution against the church in Jerusalem. Many of the believers must flee the city, but the apostles decide to stay. It seems likely that the persecution was targeted more toward the Greek-speaking Christians, as they were more closely associated with Stephen. However, the persecution may have spread to the Hebrew Christians as well. Saul tracks down Christians and has them arrested and thrown in prison. Some brave Christians give Stephen a proper burial, even though it was prohibited by Jewish law.

The attacks on the Christians in Jerusalem have an unintended consequence, however. As they flee the city and travel to other towns and villages, the believers start to spread the story of Jesus to the surrounding region, something they hadn’t done for the first several years after Pentecost.

Luke focuses on Philip. Recall that he was one of the seven chosen to ensure the Hellenist widows were cared for. As a Hellenist Christian, he was probably one of the first to leave Jerusalem. He travels to a city in Samaria and preaches “the Christ.” It is unclear which city Philip visits first, although Darrell Bock suggests Sychar (see map below). Sychar is the religious center of Samaria, so it would make sense that Philip would go there first.

Philip performs miraculous exorcisms and healings, all of which cause the Samaritans to listen to what he has to say about Jesus. Luke reports that a significant number receive the message and that there is great joy in the city.

In verses 14-17, Luke reports that Peter and John travel from Jerusalem to see for themselves what is happening in Samaria. When Peter and John arrive, they pray for the Samaritan converts and lay hands on them. Immediately, the Holy Spirit manifests himself in the new believers. We are not sure what occurs, but we can speculate that they were able to speak in foreign languages just as the disciples were able to do at Pentecost. In fact, some scholars refer to this event as the Samaritan Pentecost.

A question arises, however, as to why the Samaritan believers did not immediately receive the Holy Spirit when they professed and were baptized in Jesus’ name. Only after Peter and John lay hands on them does this occur.

As mentioned in a previous lesson, there is not a set pattern in the Book of Acts for baptism and receipt of the Holy Spirit, so we must not take this particular story and try to make it normative for the church. It seems that the addition of the Samaritans to the early church required apostolic confirmation to keep the church from dividing. We need to remember that the Jews and Samaritans actively dislike each other. Clinton Arnold, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary) , recounts the history of the Samaritans:

The Samaritans viewed themselves as Israelites, true remnants of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, who maintained a monotheistic faith and upheld the Torah as holy scripture. They kept the rite of circumcision, regularly observed the Sabbath and the Jewish festivals, and honored Moses as the greatest of the prophets. The Jews, however, viewed the Samaritans as ‘half breeds’—descendants of Mesopotamian (Gentile) colonists who settled in the area and intermarried with the Jews remaining there after the Jewish exile by Assyria (2 Kings 17:24-31).

At the heart of the schism between Jews and Samaritans in the first century was the fact that Samaritans rejected the Jewish temple worship. Three centuries earlier, they had constructed their own temple on Mount Gerizim. They also rejected all of the Hebrew Bible except the first five books of Moses. The hostility intensified in the century before Christ when John Hyrcanus destroyed their temple (107 B.C.) and devastated many of their cities. Under the Syrian ruler Antiochus Epiphanes (167 B.C.), they had requested that their temple be dedicated to Zeus Hellenios, thus identifying Zeus with Yahweh.

The Jewish rabbi Ben Sira refers to the Samaritans as ‘the foolish people that live in Shechem.’ Jews regarded Samaritans on the same level as Gentiles in ritual and purity matters. Not only did Jews prohibit intermarriage with Samaritans, but they did not even allow a Samaritan to convert to Judaism. The apostle John summarizes the situation well when he says, ‘Jews do not associate with Samaritans’ (John 4:9).

If the apostles did not personally visit the new Samaritan converts and confirm that they were truly added to the church by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, there would likely have been a schism. The bad blood between the Samaritans and Jews would have caused considerable damage to the movement. But with the Holy Spirit coming to the Samaritans, all doubts are erased, and church unity is preserved.

In verse 26, an angel instructs Philip to leave Samaria and go down south of Jerusalem onto the road that leads past Gaza (see map above). As Philip is walking on the road, an Ethiopian official is riding in a chariot and reading aloud from an Isaiah scroll. Clinton Arnold explains that in the

Greco-Roman period, ‘Ethiopia’ referred to the land south of Egypt—what is today the Sudan and modern Ethiopia. In Old Testament times, this was the land of Cush (see Est. 1:1; 8:9; Isa. 11:11). The term ‘Ethiopia’ has come to mean the land of the ‘Burnt-Faced People,’ indicating their black skin. The man whom Philip encounters is most likely from the kingdom of Nubia located on the Nile River between Aswan and the Fourth Cataract (a waterfall-like area of rapids). The capital of this region is Meroe.

Since the Ethiopian had come to Jerusalem to worship, he would have been called a God-fearer. God-fearers are people who worship the God of Israel, but who are not official converts to Judaism (proselytes). In this case, because the Ethiopian is a eunuch, Jewish law forbids him from becoming a proselyte. Arnold surmises, “As a Gentile God-fearer, he could not have taken part in the temple services in Jerusalem. At the most, he could be admitted into the Court of the Gentiles. Perhaps the Ethiopian came for one or more of the three great pilgrim festivals (Passover, Pentecost, or Tabernacles).”

The Holy Spirit directs Philip to engage with the eunuch, so Philip asks him if he understands what he is reading. The eunuch tells him no and invites Philip into his chariot to explain the words (Isaiah 53:7-8) to him. Philip explains that the sheep led to slaughter is none other than the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. From there, Philip expands upon how the Scriptures all point toward Jesus as the promised Messiah.

As the chariot passes by water, the eunuch asks Philip to baptize him because the eunuch has understood and believed what Philip has said about Jesus. Philip baptizes the eunuch and then disappears, taken by the Holy Spirit to a city just north called Azotus. Philip continues his missionary work up the coast of Judea and Samaria until he reaches Caesarea, where he resides for at least 20 years (see Acts 21).

Why would Luke spend so much time on the conversion of a single man? First, the Greco-Roman world regarded Ethiopia, which was south of Egypt, as the “end of the earth.” Luke wanted to show that the command to take the gospel to the ends of the earth in Acts 1:8 is being accomplished. Second, Luke is recording the first conversion of a black man, a man who belongs to a non-Semitic ethnic group. All ethnic groups are to be included in the kingdom of God. Third, the eunuch is the first example of a God-fearer coming to believe in Jesus. God-fearers were excluded from becoming full Jews, but in Jesus’ church, they were not excluded. They are full members, along with all other converts.

Commentary on Acts 6-7 (Stephen Martyred)

A few years after Pentecost, the apostles are continuing to grow the church in Jerusalem, but they have not yet left Jerusalem to proclaim the gospel anywhere else. This would soon change.

In chapter 6, verses 1-7, Luke tells us that the Hellenists started complaining about their widows being neglected in the daily charitable distributions. Hellenists are Jews who speak Greek as a first language, and who probably understand very little Hebrew or Aramaic. These are Jews who lived outside of Palestine but then moved to Jerusalem at some point in their adult lives. Jews who grew up in Palestine (Judea, Samaria, Galilee) spoke primarily Aramaic and Hebrew, with Greek as a second language.

In that day, devout, Greek-speaking, Jewish men would often move with their wives to Jerusalem, or the surrounding area, so that they could live their final years in the Holy Land, near the temple. The husbands would frequently die first and leave behind widows who had no nearby family to care for them.

Jews took very seriously the biblical commands to care for widows. There were weekly and daily distributions to widows. According to Clinton Arnold, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary) , “The daily distribution (tamûy) typically consisted of bread, beans, and fruit. The weekly distribution (quppā) consisted of food and clothing.” The early church was likely implementing the same sort of system.

We are not told why the Hellenist widows are being ignored, but it probably was due to church growth. The apostles are dealing with thousands of people, and they are not as familiar with the Greek-speaking widows as they are with the Hebrew widows, so they accidentally omit them from the distributions.

In any case, the apostles need to focus on prayer, preaching, and teaching, and the added burden of administering charity to the Hellenist widows would be too much for them to handle. They wisely ask the Hellenists to nominate, from within their group, seven men who could take over administration of the daily distribution to the Hellenist widows. They had to be men of “good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” The Hellenists choose Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus. Both Stephen and Philip will be featured in subsequent chapters of Acts.

Luke notes that the number of converts continued to increase in Jerusalem and that Levitical priests were included in that number. Darrell Bock, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible) , notes that the

conversion of a ‘large group of priests’ has important apologetics value. The priests came to Jesus as previous opponents, so they must have assessed the claims of the apostles and found them convincing. Second, they would have checked the Scriptures carefully before deciding that the claims the apostles made about Jesus and God’s salvation program were true. Third, they would have been aware of the harsh view Jewish officials took on Jesus, and so their daring to come to faith indicates their conviction was strong enough that they were willing to suffer the scorn their conversion would invite. Finally, in converting from the camp of opposition, the priests were able to supply the faith community with insider information on the official priestly assessment of Jesus and his followers. Such information supports the conclusion that the NT accurately represents what the Jewish leadership thought of Jesus and the church.

Starting in verse 8, Luke writes that Stephen is performing miracles and preaching at a particular Hellenist synagogue whose members included former Roman slaves and Jews from other parts of the Roman Empire. Some members of the synagogue argue with Stephen and attempt to discredit his teaching, but Stephen’s words are irrefutable because he is filled with the Spirit. Since they cannot silence Stephen with argumentation, they accuse him of blasphemy. Stephen is arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin to defend himself.

Witnesses at the council hearing stand up and say about Stephen, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” The holy place is the temple, so Stephen is accused of speaking against the temple and the Law given by Moses.

Stephen’s response to the charges against him stretches from chapter 7, verse 2 to verse 53. Due to time constraints, we must summarize the speech before picking up the narrative in verse 51. At first glance, Stephen seems to be merely reciting biblical history. However, his recitation is meant to highlight at least two major themes. John Polhill, in Acts, vol. 26, The New American Commentary , explains:

Two recurring themes stand out. The first is that God can never be tied down to one land or place and correspondingly that his people are closest to him when they are a ‘pilgrim people,’ a people on the move. The second major theme is that of Israel’s pattern of constantly resisting and rejecting its God-appointed leaders. The second theme has accompanying it a subtle Christological emphasis, which is ultimately the main goal of the speech. Israel’s past points to the present. The pattern of rejection in the past foreshadows the ultimate rejection of God’s appointed Messiah in the present. Other themes are related to this major one, even the explicit temple critique in vv. 47–50. The fulfillment of Israel’s true worship is in the Messiah, and in rejecting him they were rejecting what ultimately the temple was all about.

Related to these two themes is Stephen’s thoughts about the temple. Stephen is accused of denigrating the temple, but that is a misunderstanding. Polhill writes:

Stephen did not reject the temple as such but the abuse of the temple, which made it into something other than a place for offering worship to God. His view is thus closely linked to that of Jesus, who also attacked the abuses of the temple cult and stressed its true purpose of being a ‘house of prayer’ (Luke 19:46).

The particular abuse that Stephen addressed was the use of the temple to restrict, confine, and ultimately to try to manipulate God. This seems to have been the significance in his contrast between the tabernacle in vv. 44–46 and the temple in vv. 47–48. The tabernacle was designed (v. 44) and approved by God. It was a ‘dwelling place’ for God, but not a ‘house’ of God. It is the concept of ‘house’ to which Stephen objected. As a ‘house’ the temple was conceived as a man-made edifice in which God was confined: ‘This is his house—here and nowhere else.’

In verses 51-53, Stephen directly challenges his audience: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.  Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”

The Jews accusing Stephen are acting exactly as their ancestors did. Their ancestors persecuted and killed God’s prophets, and now they have killed the very Messiah whom the prophets predicted. It is likely that Stephen has more to say, but he never gets the chance. Sensing the rage of his audience, Stephen pauses his speech and receives a vision from God. In the vision, he sees Jesus, the Son of Man, standing at the right hand of God the Father, and he tells the assembly what he has seen.

Darrell Bock writes, in Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament :

When Stephen proclaims that he sees the Son of Man, Jesus, standing at the right hand of the Father, it is too much (vv. 55–56). In their view, Stephen is attacking the very uniqueness of God by suggesting that there is one standing next to him in heaven. They see this as a clear act of blasphemy. This difference over Jesus and all that grows out of it is the key to the conflict and parting of the ways between Jews and the new community.

The crowd from the synagogue grab him and drag him outside the city walls to be stoned to death. As the synagogue witnesses remove their cloaks so that they can stone Stephen, Luke tells us that a young man named Saul guards the cloaks. Here we have our first introduction to the man who would ultimately write most of the letters contained in the New Testament, the apostle Paul. But before Saul would become Paul, he would persecute the Jerusalem church. The martyrdom of Stephen would precipitate a full-blown conflict between the church and the Jews of Jerusalem. The conflict would finally force some church members to leave Jerusalem and spread the gospel to Judea and Samaria.

Bock summarizes the story of Stephen’s death:

In sum, this unit looks at someone who paid the ultimate price for faith: martyrdom. Stephen dies not only seeing Jesus standing in heaven to receive him but also praying for those who killed him. Stephen dies as Jesus did and follows his example. Death is frightening, but martyrdom for Jesus, though not sought, is an honorable death. Other believers can draw strength from the way in which Stephen bears his cross.

The scene also portrays what is dividing the new faith from Judaism: the honor Jesus receives. What is glorious to Stephen is blasphemy to his audience. The two views cannot be more divergent. The vision of God’s glory reinforces the conclusion that Stephen’s view of things is the truth. A second appearance by Jesus to Saul will convince the model persecutor of the church that Stephen is right about Jesus.

Does Acts 4:32-35 Describe an Early Christian Experiment in Community Ownership?

The book of Acts describes the early church in Jerusalem in the following way: “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32). Does this describe an early experiment in compulsory community ownership of all property? John Polhill, in vol. 26, Acts, The New American Commentary , argues that it is not:

Repeated attempts have been made to see this as an early Christian experiment in community ownership. Sometimes a specific pattern has been suggested, such as the common ownership practiced by the Qumran covenanters. There are many reasons to reject such suggestions. Every evidence is that the early Christian practice was wholly voluntary.

First, there was no transfer of ownership, no control of production or income, no requirement to surrender one’s property to the community. The voluntary nature of the Christian practice is evidenced by the consistent use of the iterative imperfect tense throughout vv. 34b–35. This is how they ‘used to’ do it. They ‘would sell’ their property and bring it to the apostles as needs arose.

Second is the example of Barnabas in vv. 36–37. His sale of property would hardly be a sterling example if surrender of property were obligatory.

Third, in the example of Ananias and Sapphira, Peter clarified for Ananias that his sin was in lying about his charity. The land remained his to do with as he pleased; he was under no obligation to give the proceeds to the church (5:4).

Fourth, the picture of the central fund for the widows in 6:1–6 is clearly not an apportioning of each one’s lot from a common fund but a charity fund for the needy.

Finally, there is the example of Mary in 12:12f. She still owned a home and had a maid. The Christians enjoyed the hospitality of her home. This was clearly no experiment in common ownership.

But what of the practice of laying the proceeds at the apostles’ feet? The gesture was one of submission to another. At this point the Twelve were the representatives appointed by Christ as the foundation of the true people of God. The submission was not to them but to the one they represented. To lay one’s gift at their feet was to offer it to Christ. The apostles certainly did not consider this an enviable role. They were all too glad to turn the responsibility over to others (cf. 6:2).

Darrell Bock adds, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible) ,

This sharing of material things was not a required communalism but a voluntary, caring response to need, as the end of verse 45 shows. The verbs for ‘sell’ (epipraskon) and ‘distribute’ (diemerizon) are iterative imperfects. The implication is that this sharing was repetitive. That a community is really functioning with appropriate love and compassion is evident when material needs are being met.

Peter’s rebuke of Ananias in Acts 5:4 makes it clear that donation of material goods and money was not a requirement among early Christians, in contrast to the requirement at Qumran among the Essenes (1QS 1.11– 12; 5.1– 3; 6.2– 3; CD 9.1– 15; 1QS 9.3– 11). That the later church did not keep the communal practice confirms the voluntary nature of the practice witnessed in Acts 2. Possessing all things in common was often seen as an ethical virtue in ancient culture (Philo, Good Person 12 § 86; Hypothetica 11.10– 13; Abraham 40 § 235; Josephus, Antiquities 18.1.5 § 20 [of the Essenes]). The Greeks held that friends share things in common (Plato, Republic 4.424A; 5.449C; Critias 110C– D; Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1168B. 31; Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras 30.168). Later rabbinic Judaism argued against it (m. ’Abot 5.10; Johnson 1992, 9).

The practice of communal living in Acts 2 was not driven by eschatological views. Rather, it was motivated by the intimate presence of God as proven by the ‘many wonders and signs [that] were being performed through the apostles’ (v. 43). The fitting response was that each member of the growing community show concern for needy members (chreian, need; perhaps as Jesus taught in Luke 6: 30– 36 or from the OT and Deut 15: 4– 5; Polhill 1992, 121). Jesus’ teaching about not hoarding material provisions from God also may provide background (Luke 12: 13– 21). The same motivation appears in Acts 4:35, and failure to meet such needs in 6:3 among Hellenist widows leads to a complaint and resolution in the church (20:34 and 28:10 complete the uses of the term ‘need’ in Acts). All of this shows we are not dealing with a command here, but a heartfelt response of deep faith. As such, the passage neither authorizes that such behavior is required, but neither does it preclude it from being done in any era as an expression of meeting community needs.

Commentary on Acts 4-5 (Ananias and Sapphira)

The verses of Acts 4:32-35 describe the situation of the small, but growing, church in Jerusalem. The community is united in “heart and soul,” and this unity causes them to freely share their material possessions with each other. There is nobody who is lacking the essentials of food, clothing, or shelter. As the wealthier members of the church see the needs of the poorer members, they sell their houses and land and give the proceeds to the apostles so that the apostles can distribute the money to the poor in the Jerusalem church.

In addition, the apostles continue preaching the resurrection of Jesus to the people of Jerusalem. Because of this preaching, God showers grace on the entire community of Christians in Jerusalem.

As an example of the generosity that characterizes the early church, Luke introduces us to Barnabas. Barnabas, a Levite from Cyprus, sells a piece of land and brings the funds the apostles to be distributed. Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement, is an important character in the book of Acts. John Polhill, in vol. 26, Acts, The New American Commentary , fills in some details:

He was the encourager, the advocate, the paraklete par excellence of all the characters in Acts. When the Christians in Jerusalem shied away from Paul after his conversion, Barnabas interceded and introduced him to them (9:26f.). When Paul refused to take Mark on his second missionary journey, Barnabas took up for Mark (15:36–39). When the Christians of Jerusalem became concerned over the orthodoxy of the Antiochene Christians in their witness to Greeks, Barnabas again served as intercessor, saw the gracious work of the Antiochene Christians, and encouraged them (11:20–23). Indeed, 11:24 well sums up the portrait of this ‘Son of Encouragement’: ‘He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith.’

We also learn that Barnabas was a Levite from Cyprus. Levites were officials in the temple cultus, subordinate in rank to the priests. Prohibited from offering sacrifices and barred entrance to the holy place, they served in such capacities as policing the temple grounds, keeping the gates, and providing the music at sacrifices and on ceremonial occasions. According to ancient provisions (Deut 10:9; Num 18:20, 24), Levites were not supposed to own land, but that no longer seemed to apply in Barnabas’s day. (Indeed, Jeremiah, a priest, owned land [Jer 32:6–15].)

We are not told where the field was located, whether in Judea or his native Cyprus. Nothing was made of Barnabas’s Levitical status in Acts. He may never have served as a Levite. Such service was in no way compulsory for one of Levitical lineage. Just how strong were Barnabas’s Cypriot roots we also are not told. Luke simply said here that he was a Cypriot by birth. His family may have moved to Jerusalem when he was quite young, and it is in and around Jerusalem where we find Barnabas active in the early chapters of Acts. On the other hand, it is probably not by chance that Paul and Barnabas’s mission work together began on the island of Cyprus.

In chapter 5, Luke reveals that not everyone in the Jerusalem church is united in heart and soul. Specifically, a man named Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, sell a piece of land and promise to give all the proceeds to the apostles. Instead, they keep some of the money for themselves without telling anyone.

Peter confronts Ananias and accuses him of being influenced by Satan and of lying to the Holy Spirit. Peter reminds Ananias that Ananias freely committed to selling his land and then freely committed to giving all the proceeds to the church. There was no coercion involved. So, when Ananias pretends to give all the proceeds to the church, but in actuality only renders a portion of the proceeds, he is attempting to deceive God.

Immediately after hearing Peter’s words, Ananias falls to the ground and dies. The implication seems to be that God has judged Ananias for his sin by taking his life. Similar judgments occurred in the Old Testament: Leviticus 10:2 (fire consumes Nadab and Abihu), Joshua 7:1, 19–26 (with Achan), and 1 Kings 14:1–18 (Abijah’s death). Some young men hastily take his body away and bury him. Luke remarks that great fear came upon those that heard about Ananias’ death.

After three hours had passed, Sapphira comes to see Peter. She does not know what has happened to her husband. Peter gives Sapphira a chance to tell him the truth about the profits from the land sale, but she sticks to the lie that she and Ananias concocted. Peter accuses her, just like he did with Ananias, of lying to the Holy Spirit. He then tells her that she is about to face the same punishment as her husband, death.

When she falls down and dies, the same young men carry her away and bury her beside her husband. Luke closes the story with another statement about the great fear that came upon all those who heard about what happened.

Why did Ananias and Sapphira lie about the money they received from the land sale? We can speculate that there were at least a couple of motivations. First, they desired to receive praise from the apostles and community by selling the land and giving all the proceeds to them. Second, they apparently wanted to hold on to some of their wealth, despite their commitment to give it away. They were not “all in.” Darrell Bock, in Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament , explains what we can learn from this tragic story:

In sum, this is a difficult passage because the judgment against Ananias and Sapphira is instantaneous and direct. This judgment indicates, however, how serious sin is to God and how gracious God is in often deferring such judgment. Most sin is not treated so harshly, but at this early stage, such a divine act serves to remind the community of its call to holiness and its loyalty to God. God sees and knows all. Sin is dealt with directly. The resulting fear that the judgment creates is exactly what the passage seeks to engender—respect for God and for righteousness as well as a recognition that sin is destructive and dangerous. There is honesty in this report as well. The church is not a place of perfect people (Fernando 1998: 198).

The sequence of sin is never isolated. The desire for praise and perhaps a desire to hang on to possessions led to lying. Fernando (1998: 201–3) calls the sin of the couple primarily one of pride and deceit. Manipulating their reputation was more important than allegiance to God and God’s reputation. Abuse of possessions can undergird a manipulated reputation. Lying led to deceit and an offense against God. Sin almost never comes in a single package; it begets more sin.

The passage has another lesson: sin will be dealt with. The passage emphasizes a path of honesty and integrity, as Ananias and Sapphira are counterexamples, standing in contrast to the earlier Barnabas (Stott 1990: 109).

What Is the Meaning of Peter’s Exclusive Claim in Acts 4:12?

In Acts 4:12, the apostle Peter boldly tells the Jewish Supreme Court about the name of Jesus Christ, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” We moderns are offended by exclusive religious claims because we’re confident that nobody has the truth about spiritual matters. So what do we make of Peter’s statement? Was he just speaking to the people of his time and place?

Darrell Bock, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible) , tackles the issue of Peter’s intentions:

Since Peter, just like anyone else among the early Christians, could not have known the sheer size of Earth or the number of its people groups and how long it would take to reach the whole world with the gospel, it has been suggested that ‘under heaven’ ought not to be taken to mean that Jesus is the only way people can be saved. Might it just be that Jesus is the only means of salvation among the Jews and the people groups his ministry touched?

Witherington (1998, 194) correctly observes, ‘Peter is no advocate of modern notions of religious pluralism’ (also John 14: 6; 1 Tim 2: 5; Heb 2: 3). The consistent message throughout the NT is that Jesus is the only Savior for humanity. Human ignorance about the size of Earth’s landmass and human population has no bearing on the central facts of humanity’s need for redemption and the one means of redemption that is provided. Of course the exclusiveness claim offends many readers, and they seek to avoid it by noting the primitive geographical understanding of biblical times. Two considerations speak against such an argument.

First, the Roman Empire was like a sponge when it came to religion. Romans accepted all kinds of gods and religious ideas that came from the far corners of their vast empire. A trip to Caesarea Philippi, a locale where Jesus did some of his ministry, shows the presence and awareness of many of these gods. So Peter and the other apostles were well aware of the plurality of religions, and they understood that many of these originated in faraway places they would never visit. They preached the exclusivity of Christ within the context of the religious melting pot that was the Roman Empire, and so the fact that there were other world religions about which they were ignorant does not mitigate their claims about the exclusivity of Christ.

Second, and more importantly, the claim was that Jesus meets an internal need all people everywhere have. Their claim was not that other people did not seek to be pious; they knew that virtually all people are religious. Their claim was instead that Jesus alone can remedy what is wrong with us. The disciples were so committed to this idea and its exclusiveness that they devoted themselves to getting the word out as far and wide as they could. The claim of there being no other such saving name under heaven indicates how comprehensive a solution Jesus is in the apostle’s view.

Bock, in , addresses the fear that people today have of exclusive religious claims:

There is an exclusiveness to Jesus’s work that is not popular today. It is seen in our culture as a blow against religious diversity as well as the cause of great religious and political strife throughout history, especially in European history up to the Enlightenment. But a key point is often missed. It is when religion is imposed that it does damage. Here we see apostles making an appeal and leaving the decision and consequences to individual response. There is no effort to impose the faith, only to inform about it and to stress the responsibility every creature ultimately has to be responsive to the living God.

In addition, the offer of Jesus is made to all without discrimination. Thus the exclusiveness of the benefit is directly related to one’s willingness or unwillingness to be connected to the benefits. The church’s call is to be loyal to God in sharing the message and doing so in such a way that its impact on believers’ lives is evident. The call is not to impose the gospel on others. Some will not welcome such a testimony. They are left to go their own way with its tragic consequences. To others, however, the gospel will supply the sweet savor of real life and will open new vistas to how one can live and have fellowship with God.

Commentary on Acts 3-4 (Peter and John Arrested)

Sometime after Pentecost, Peter and John, who have been living in Jerusalem, walk to the temple around 3 pm for one of the daily prayer times. John Polhill, in vol. 26, Acts, The New American Commentary , observes that it

was also the time of the evening Tamid, one of the two sacrifices held daily in the temple. These had become prescribed times of prayer, and people would come to the temple at the sacrifice times to observe the ceremony and pray. The largest crowds would thus have been found at the times of sacrifice, as Peter and John must have been well aware; for they went to the temple for prayer and for witness.

As they approach one of the massive gates that connect an outer court to an inner court of the temple complex, a crippled man is begging for money. The text informs us that the man has been disabled since birth and we later learn that he is forty years old.

The gate at which the man begs is called the Beautiful Gate in the text. Polhill provides background on the gate:

Josephus spoke of ten gates in the sanctuary. Nine, he said, were overlaid with silver and gold; but the tenth ‘was of Corinthian bronze and far exceeded in value those plated with silver and set in gold.’ So massive was this gate that when it was closed each evening, it ‘could scarcely be moved by twenty men.’ This seems to be the same gate identified in the rabbinic literature as the Nicanor gate.

There is some discrepancy between the sources about the exact location of this gate. Josephus placed it at the far eastern access to the sanctuary, leading from the court of the Gentiles (the outer courtyard) into the court of the women. The rabbinic sources place it at the eastern access to the court of the men of Israel, thus between the court of the women and that of the men. Many scholars see Josephus as giving the correct location, since he was writing from living memory, whereas the rabbinic writings date from a period long after the destruction of the temple. This seems to be the most likely spot for Peter’s encounter with the lame man. He lay at the beautiful gate with its magnificent doors of Corinthian bronze, begging at the entrance to, but still definitely outside, the sanctuary.

When the crippled man asks Peter and John for money, they stop and ask him to look at them. Peter tells the man that they do not have money to give him, but they have something else. Peter heals the man and performs the healing in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Peter pulls the man up from the ground on his newly strengthened feet, and the man follows Peter and John into the inner court of the temple. Since disabled people are not allowed into the inner court of the temple, the man had never been here before (see Lev 21:17–20; 2 Sam 5:8). Luke reports that he walked, leaped, and praised God. All the people in the temple courts were amazed at the miracle that had just occurred.

We skip now to chapter 4.  Peter and John have been preaching and teaching about the resurrection of Jesus in the inner courts of the temple, and they have attracted a large crowd because of the miraculous healing of the lame beggar.  While they are preaching, some Levite priests, the Levite captain in charge of security in the temple, and some members of the Sadducees confront and arrest them. They leave them in prison overnight because the Sanhedrin is not allowed to convene until daylight. Luke notes that at this point in their ministry five thousand Jewish men have come to believe in Jesus.

Why would the Sadducees arrest Peter and John? Polhill explains that the

Sadducees were clearly the powers behind the arrest of the two. Josephus listed them as one of the three ‘schools of thought’ among the Jews of the first century, along with the Pharisees and Essenes (Ant. 13.171). The origin of their name is disputed but may go back to Zadok, the high priest in Solomon’s day. The Sadducees of the first century represented the ‘conservative’ viewpoint. They rejected the oral traditions of the Pharisees and considered only the written Torah of the Pentateuch as valid. They considered the concepts of demons and angels, immortality and resurrection as innovations, believing in no life beyond this life.

More important than their theology, however, was their political orientation. Coming largely from the landed aristocracy, they were accommodationists with regard to the Roman occupation of Israel. Possessing considerable economic interests, their concern was to make peace with the Romans, preserve the status quo, and thus protect their own holdings. In return the Romans accorded the Sadducees considerable power, invariably appointing the high priest from their ranks, who was the most powerful political figure among the Jews in that day. The prime concern of the Sadducean aristocracy, of whom the high priest was the chief spokesman, was the preservation of order, the avoidance at all costs of any confrontation with the Roman authorities.

But the question remains: how does the preaching of Peter and John threaten peace with the Romans? Polhill continues:

Note the wording in v. 2: not ‘they were proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus’ but ‘they were proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.’ The idea of a general resurrection was an apocalyptic concept with all sorts of messianic overtones. Messianic ideas among the Jews of that day meant revolt, overthrow of the foreign overlords, and restoration of the Davidic kingdom. There had been such movements before (cf. 5:36–37), and the Romans had put them down. There would be many more in the future. In fact, the worst fears of the Sadducees were indeed realized when war broke out with the Romans in a.d. 66, with terrible consequences for the Jews. Here, with the large crowds surrounding Peter and John, their fears were aroused. The notes of Peter’s sermon alarmed them: resurrection, Author of life, a new Moses. These were revolutionary ideas. The movement must not spread. It must be nipped in the bud.

The next morning the Sanhedrin gathers together to question Peter and John. They ask them by what power or name they healed the lame beggar. Peter’s response is bold and confident because the Holy Spirit is guiding him, just as Jesus promised (see Matt. 10:19–20; Luke 12:11–12; 21:15).

Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well.  This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.  And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.

Peter proclaims that the name by which the lame beggar was healed is the name of Jesus, the very man they had sent to Pilate for crucifixion. Peter then refers to Psalm 118:22, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” Jesus is the chief cornerstone and the Jewish leadership are the builders. Craig Keener, in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament , notes that “Peter learned this use of Psalm 118:22, cited here in verse 11, from Jesus; see Luke 20:17.”

Finally, Peter’s speech climaxes with an exclusive claim. Not only was Jesus’ name responsible for the healing of the beggar, but Jesus’ name is the only name by which any person can be saved from the day of judgment.

The Jewish council members are astonished that men with no formal religious education are speaking so openly and boldly about the things of God. Given the fact that the forty-year-old man was clearly healed by Peter and John, the council members are unable to say anything in response.

Their only recourse is to threaten Peter and John if they continue to preach about Jesus. Peter and John, however, respond that given a choice between obeying the Sanhedrin and following God, they must choose to obey God. Given the public nature of the healing miracle, the Sanhedrin cannot hold Peter and John any longer, for they are simply too popular. The council dismisses them.

Is Baptism Essential for Salvation?

In Peter’s Pentecost sermon, Peter tells the assembled crowd, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Some Christians have taken this verse to mean that baptism is essential for salvation. If a person repents, but does not get baptized, they are not saved.

Stanley Toussaint, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary , analyzes three different views biblical scholars have proposed for the command to be baptized in Acts 2.

A problem revolves around the command ‘be baptized’ and its connection with the remainder of 2:38. There are several views: (1) One is that both repentance and baptism result in remission of sins. In this view, baptism is essential for salvation. The problem with this interpretation is that elsewhere in Scripture forgiveness of sins is based on faith alone (John 3:16, 36; Rom. 4:1–17; 11:6; Gal. 3:8–9; Eph. 2:8–9; etc.). Furthermore Peter, the same speaker, later promised forgiveness of sins on the basis of faith alone (Acts 5:31; 10:43; 13:38; 26:18).

(2) A second interpretation translates 2:38, ‘Be baptized … on the basis of the remission of your sins.’ The preposition used here is eis which, with the accusative case, may mean ‘on account of, on the basis of.’ It is used in this way in Matthew 3:11; 12:41; and Mark 1:4. Though it is possible for this construction to mean ‘on the basis of,’ this is not its normal meaning; eis with the accusative case usually describes purpose or direction.

(3) A third view takes the clause and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ as parenthetical. Several factors support this interpretation: (a) The verb makes a distinction between singular and plural verbs and nouns. The verb ‘repent’ is plural and so is the pronoun ‘your’ in the clause so that your sins may be forgiven (lit., ‘unto the remission of your sins,’ eis aphesin tōn hamartiōn hymōn). Therefore the verb ‘repent’ must go with the purpose of forgiveness of sins. On the other hand the imperative ‘be baptized’ is singular, setting it off from the rest of the sentence. (b) This concept fits with Peter’s proclamation in Acts 10:43 in which the same expression ‘sins may be forgiven’ (aphesin hamartiōn) occurs. There it is granted on the basis of faith alone. (c) In Luke 24:47 and Acts 5:31 the same writer, Luke, indicates that repentance results in remission of sins.

Darrell Bock, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible) , also argues that baptism is not essential to salvation:

Despite later controversy about whether one must believe and be baptized in order to be saved, what Peter says here and in his own later epistle shows that the key is the response to God, not the rite per se. This response and its cleansing effect are what the rite signifies, not what the rite accomplishes. The act of baptism portrays a washing and signifies what faith produces, cleansing. Peter explains this in 1 Peter 3: 21: ‘Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the pledge of a good conscience toward God) through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.’ The rite is not magical but symbolizes what repentance is asking God to do, to give forgiveness (Acts 5: 31; 10: 43; 13: 38; 26: 18). To undertake baptism is to affirm in public what the heart has privately done to come into relationship with God. ‘Baptism is a natural part of the much more important conversion’ and a ‘self-evident expression of conversion’ (Schweizer, TDNT 6: 413– 14). Thus, baptism is the representation of the cleansing that belongs to salvation.

A Christian Apologetics Blog

SEO Powered by Platinum SEO from Techblissonline