All posts by Bill Pratt

Commentary on Acts 15 (Jerusalem Council)

In AD 48, some Jewish Christians from Jerusalem come to Syrian Antioch, Paul and Barnabas’ home church. These men from Jerusalem argue that Gentile Christians must be circumcised and adhere to the Mosaic Law if they want to be truly saved. Paul and Barnabas disagree, so the church in Antioch appoint Paul and Barnabas to go to the mother church in Jerusalem, where they will convene with the apostles and elders there.

The journey to Jerusalem probably takes a month or more, so Paul and Barnabas stop along the way and visit several churches in Phoenicia and Samaria. At each stop, they relay the news that Gentiles are converting in high numbers, and the news is met with great joy.

When they arrive at Jerusalem, they meet with the apostles and elders of the Jerusalem church, along with several other members of the Jerusalem church. Paul and Barnabas describe in detail the conversion of Gentiles during their first missionary journey into Asia Minor. After they finish speaking, a group of Christians who were formerly Pharisees rise to argue that these Gentile converts must be circumcised and keep the law of Moses. John Polhill, in vol. 26, Acts, The New American Commentary, writes:

It should come as no surprise that some of the Pharisees had become Christians. Pharisees believed in resurrection, life after death, and the coming Messiah. They shared the basic convictions of the Christians. Because of this they are sometimes in Acts found defending the Christians against the Sadducees, who had much less in common with Christian views (cf. 5:17; 23:8f.). A major barrier between Christians and Pharisees was the extensive use of oral tradition by the Pharisees, which Jesus and Paul both rejected as human tradition. It is not surprising that some Pharisees came to embrace Christ as the Messiah in whom they had hoped. For all their emphasis on law, it is also not surprising that they would be reticent to receive anyone into the fellowship in a manner not in accordance with tradition. That tradition was well-established for proselytes—circumcision and the whole yoke of the law.

A lengthy debate ensues, although Luke leaves out the details. After listening to both sides, Peter, as the leader of the apostles, stands to speak. In verses 7-9, Peter recounts his experience with Cornelius and his household (Acts 10), an event which had occurred some ten years earlier. The Holy Spirit had been given to Cornelius because his heart had been cleansed by faith, not by circumcision or by following the law of Moses. Peter then argues that to require Gentiles to follow the Law would be to challenge God Himself. After all, if God does not require circumcision and Law adherence, then why should the Christian leadership add these burdens to the Gentiles? Peter closes by reiterating that “we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

The whole assembly falls silent until Barnabas and Paul speak up again and describe the miracles that God performed during their mission trip to the Gentiles in Asia Minor.

James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the elders of the Jerusalem church, now stands to speak. James makes the case that Peter’s experience with Cornelius is a precise fulfillment of prophecy. Darrell Bock, in Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, explains that “James’s quotation matches Amos 9:11–12 LXX with material in verse 18 from Isa. 45:21. Jeremiah 12:15 may be the source for the opening ‘After these things I will return,’ but this is less than clear, since the phrases may be only a transition into the citation that shows how James sees the timing.”

Bock adds:

The reference to the prophets is important. James’s point is not just about this one passage from Amos; rather, this passage reflects what the prophets teach in general, or what the book of the Prophets as a whole teaches. Other texts could be noted (Zech. 2:11; 8:22; Isa. 2:2; 45:20–23; Hos. 3:4–5; Jer. 12:15–16). James is stressing fulfillment, for the prophets agree with what Peter has described. This is not an affirmation of analogous fulfillment but a declaration that this is now taking place. God had promised Gentile inclusion; now he is performing it. Paul cites a string of OT texts on this theme in Rom. 15:7–13.

The prophets predicted that the Gentiles would be added to God’s people. They would be added when the house of David was restored. The house of David was rebuilt in Jesus of Nazareth, the descendant of David and long-awaited Messiah. Bock notes that the

goal of this rebuilding work is to allow the rest of humanity, not just Jews, to seek God. This fulfills not only the promise to David about his line but also a commitment to Abraham that through his seed the world would experience blessing (Gen. 12:3; Acts 3:25–26; Gal. 3). Thus James argues that this Gentile inclusion is part of the plan of Davidic restoration that God through the prophets said he would do. The prophets affirm what is taking place now. So both divine events and Scripture sustain the church’s inclusion of Gentiles.

In James’ opinion, the Gentile converts need not be circumcised nor follow the law of Moses to be saved. He agrees with Peter that salvation is now by faith in Christ. But the problem remains that the Gentile converts, since they are new followers of Yahweh, are falling prey to the pagan religious institutions to which they once belonged. James believes that the church in Antioch should be sent a letter which states that Gentiles should “abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.”

Clinton Arnold, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary) explains:

The focus of the debate now shifts away from the question of what is essential for salvation to one of how to help Gentile believers break away from their idolatrous pre-Christian practices. Each of these four instructions relates to dangers associated with involvement in idolatry. James wants to make sure that these Gentiles make a clean break with their past when they embrace the living and true God. The instructions are, therefore, guidelines to assist their growth as believers, knowing full well that the Gentiles will continue to face significant cultural and spiritual pressures stemming from their past immersion in idolatry and ongoing association with family, friends, and coworkers still involved with it. These guidelines are a practical help in the spiritual and moral battle these Gentiles will face.

Arnold provides more details about each of the four proscribed sins. About the first item, “the Greek word alisgēma should not be limited to food, but should be understood as referring to any kind of contact with idolatrous practices.”

On sexual immorality, the

term porneia is used in Judaism to refer to any kind of sexual activity outside the bond of marriage. Porneia is roundly condemned throughout the New Testament. The sexual mores of the Greek and Roman world were much more lax than what was expected and practiced in Judaism and early Christianity. This was certainly one area where new Gentile believers needed admonishment. But illicit sexual activity also occurred in connection with the worship of other gods.

Arnold argues that the prohibition against strangled animals and blood also refer to pagan rituals. “Both Jews and the early Christians are convinced that demonic spirits were involved in idolatry. When writing to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul wrote, ‘The sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons’ (1 Cor. 10:20).”

Other commentators note that these four practices would be especially offensive to Jewish Christians and present a stumbling block to relations between them and Gentile Christians. In verse 21 James reminds the council that the Law of Moses has been read for generations in every synagogue on every Sabbath, so sensitivity is called for. James’ letter not only provides much-needed guidance to Gentile Christians about the dangers of pagan idolatry, but it also provides a way for Jewish and Gentile Christians to unite in Christian fellowship.

In the remainder of chapter 15, the letter is written and sent to the church in Antioch, where it is received with rejoicing.

Darrell Bock summarizes the lesson to be taken from this Jerusalem council:

On the one hand, salvation by grace is an issue of Christian truth that is not to be compromised. No particular work of the law was added as a requirement for salvation or membership in the new community. Salvation cannot be a matter of human works. It is about receiving God’s grace from start to finish. Faith means relying only on what God has provided in terms of forgiveness and the benefits of salvation that come with it. On the other hand, Christian fellowship means that grace should be shown for differences that are not central to the truth of salvation, as an expression of love. This deference preserves the church and protects it from fragmentation. In his discussion, Stott notes that Luther spoke of Paul as being hard, even adamant, on the gospel but soft and flexible when it comes to love—or, as Stott notes that John Newton said, an iron pillar in essentials and a reed in nonessentials.

Do You Need a Holy Book to Know a Creator God Exists?

Not according to the Bible, which is telling since the Bible is a holy book. There are at least a handful of passages in the Bible which teach that a person comes to know that a Creator God exists by just observing the natural world. Theologian Norm Geisler expounds on these passages in his Systematic Theology, Volume One: Introduction, Bible.

’The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands,’ the psalmist writes (Ps. 19:1). ‘The heavens proclaim his righteousness, and all the peoples see his glory’ (Ps. 97:6). Job adds,

‘Ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?’ (Job 12:7–9)

Paul told men to

‘Turn … to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.’ (Acts 14:15–17)

He reminded the Greek philosophers,

‘The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.’ (Acts 17:24–25)

Paul declares that even the heathen stand guilty before God:

‘What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.’ (Rom. 1:19–20)

In view of this the psalmist concludes, ‘The fool says in his heart, “There is no God”’ (Ps. 14:1).

Geisler continues:

God is revealed in nature in two basic ways: as Creator and as Sustainer (see volume 2). He is the cause of the origin as well as the operation of the universe. The first speaks of God as the originator of all things: ‘By him all things were created’ and ‘in him all things hold together’ (Col. 1:16–17); God ‘made the universe’ and He also ‘sustains all things by his powerful word’ (Heb. 1:2–3); He ‘created all things’ and by Him all things ‘have their being’ (Rev. 4:11).

In addition to being their originator, God is also the sustainer of all things. He was active not only in the universe’s coming to be but is also active in its continuing to be. The psalmist refers to this latter function when he says of God: ‘He makes springs pour water into ravines.… He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate—bringing forth food from the earth’ (104:10, 14).

None of this is to say that God’s revelation about Himself through Jesus Christ and the Bible are unnecessary for a full understanding of who the Creator God is and what He is like. The point here is that God has provided enough evidence of Himself through the natural world so that all mankind can know He exists. Those who respond to this knowledge will be given more.

Commentary on Acts 14 (The Lystrans Worship Paul and Barnabas)

In about AD 45, Paul and Barnabas set out from Syrian Antioch to evangelize Gentiles in Asia Minor. Chapter 14 starts with their entrance into the city of Iconium (see map below). Iconium is a major Roman city inhabited mostly by Gentiles with a small number of Jews. Clinton Arnold, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), writes that there “is evidence that the population worshiped the Asia Minor mother goddess Cybele, Herakles (Hercules), Zeus Megistos (Jupiter Optimus Maximus), as well as Apollo.”

Paul and Barnabas convince a number of Jews and Gentiles to believe in the gospel message, but the city is divided. Even though God grants Paul and Barnabas the power to perform miracles, animosity toward them grows among the unbelieving Jews of the city. Eventually, they persuade some of the Gentiles to join them in stoning the missionaries to death. Paul and Barnabas, however, discover the plot and leave the city for Lystra and Derbe (see map below).

When the missionaries arrive at Lystra, a man crippled from birth listens intently to Paul. Paul sees his faith and commands him to stand up. The man is miraculously healed and the people of Lystra, seeing this miracle, decide that Paul and Barnabas are the gods Hermes and Zeus in human form. Why would the Lystrans react this way?

Clinton Arnold offers the following plausible explanation:

The famous first-century Roman poet Ovid tells a story about Zeus and Hermes taking mortal form and visiting an elderly couple in their humble Phrygian countryside home [the area in which Lystra is located]. Leading up to this, Zeus and Hermes visited a thousand homes seeking shelter and rest but were repeatedly spurned, their true identities being concealed. It was not until they came to the home of Philemon and Baucis that they found hospitality. The old couple welcomed the two visitors, fed them well, and prepared for them a place to rest. Not knowing that they were entertaining gods ‘in the guise of human beings,’ the old couple finally learned the identity of their heavenly visitors. The gods then led Philemon and Baucis to the top of a hill and mercifully spared them from a devastating flood sent in judgment on the inhospitable inhabitants of the region. Their humble home was miraculously transformed into a marble temple. If this local legend was known to the inhabitants of Lystra, it may help to explain their identification of the missionaries as Zeus and Hermes and their eagerness to honor them.

In Lystra, the priest of Zeus prepares oxen for a sacrifice to the two gods in their midst. Up to this point, Paul and Barnabas do not understand what is going on because the people of Lystra are speaking in the local Lycaonian language. Finally, someone translates, in Greek presumably, what is happening. Paul and Barnabas tear their clothes to communicate, in traditional Jewish fashion, their extreme distress at the Lystrans’ attempt to worship them and sacrifice to them.

Paul and Barnabas cry out to the crowd that they are mortal humans, not gods. Paul then launches into his first recorded sermon to Gentiles. Since the crowd consists of Gentiles, Paul does not cite biblical passages to build his case for Jesus. Instead, he appeals to what theologians call general revelation. General revelation is the evidence God provides of His existence in the natural world. General revelation is what we humans can observe without any supernatural aid.

Note what Paul says in verses 15-17:

You should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.  In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways.  Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.

Paul appeals to the existence of the heavens (everything that could be seen in the sky), the earth (observable land), and the sea (all of the observable bodies of water). In addition, Paul appeals to the fact that a living God must be sustaining the world because He continually provides rain and plentiful food which bring human gladness.

John Polhill, in vol. 26, Acts, The New American Commentary, writes that God

“had revealed himself in his works of natural providence. This was Paul’s final point (v. 17). God had been sending rain from heaven and causing the crops to flourish. Fruitful harvests had brought plenty of food to nourish the body and cheer the soul. Such ideas of divine providence would not have been strange to the ears of the Lystrans. They were often expressed by pagan writers in speaking of the benevolence of the gods. What was new to them was Paul’s message of the one God—that all the benevolence of nature came from the one and only God who was himself the source of all creation.”

Paul specifically says in verse 16 that God did not supernaturally communicate with the non-Jewish nations in the past. Clinton Arnold explains:

Throughout the history of Israel, God directly and repeatedly intervened by revealing himself to them, making them his own people, redeeming them from slavery, guiding and leading them, bestowing on them his law, speaking to them through the prophets, and giving them promises of a bright future. God did not respond to the Gentile nations in the same way, but he did not leave them without a witness. Paul’s comments here echo what he says elsewhere to the Greeks on the Areopagus (17:30) and to the Romans in his letter (Rom. 1:28).

After they present the gospel message and avert the crisis, some weeks or months go by. Luke records that antagonistic Jews from Iconium and Antioch make their way to Lystra and turn the people against Paul and Barnabas. They stone Paul and drag him outside of the city, leaving him for dead. God, however, miraculously intervenes and saves Paul’s life. His Lystran disciples find him alive. He and Barnabas leave Lystra the next day and proceed to Derbe (see map above).

The missionaries convert many people in Derbe with the gospel message, and then decide to revisit the Christian communities they established in Lystra, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch. Risking their lives by returning to these places, they encourage and strengthen the faith of the believers. They also appoint elders in each community to lead the church after Paul and Barnabas leave. John Polhill comments that

Derbe was the easternmost church established on the mission of Paul and Barnabas. Had the two chosen to do so, they could have continued southeast from Derbe on through the Cilician gates the 150 miles or so to Paul’s hometown of Tarsus and from there back to Syrian Antioch. It would have been the easiest route home by far. They chose, however, to retrace their footsteps and revisit all the congregations that had been established in the course of the mission. In so doing they gave an important lesson on the necessity of follow-up and nurture for any evangelistic effort. Paul would again visit these same congregations on his next mission (16:1–6).

How Does James’ Belief in Jesus Corroborate the Resurrection?

The astute reader will be astonished to see, in Acts 12, that James, the half-brother of Jesus, is mentioned by name by Peter before Peter leaves Jerusalem to escape Herod Agrippa. Let’s quickly review what we know of James from the Gospels.

  1. Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him during his ministry (Mk 3:21, 31-35; 6:3; Jn 7:1-10).
  2. Jesus’ brothers taunted him (Mk 6:3; Jn 7:1-10).
  3. Jesus’ brothers were apparently absent at Jesus’ crucifixion, where Jesus entrusted the care of his mother to one of his disciples, suggesting his brothers were nonbelievers at the time (Jn 19:25-27).

Given the fact that Jesus’ family, including James, rejected his messianic claims while he was alive, why would Peter want his Christian brothers and sisters in Acts 12 to tell James what had happened?

Michael Licona, in The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, explains that James seems to have changed his mind about Jesus after Jesus was crucified. He notes:

  1. Jesus’ brothers were in the upper room with Jesus’ disciples and mother after the resurrection (Acts 1:14).
  2. James was an apostle and leader in the Jerusalem Church (Gal 1:19; 2:9, 12; Acts 12:17; 15:13).
  3. Paul reported his activities to James (Acts 21:18).
  4. It would appear that at least some of Jesus’ brothers became believers (1 Cor 9:5).

The best explanation for James’ change of heart is that he saw his brother after he was raised from the dead. Licona writes, “James’s transformation from skeptic to believer is plausibly explained by his belief that Jesus had been raised and by a postresurrection appearance of Jesus to him (1 Cor 15:7). James believed his risen brother appeared to him.”

Licona adds:

“[Gary] Habermas asserts that the majority of critical scholars writing on the subject grant the conversion of James as a result of what he perceived was a postresurrection appearance of Jesus to him. As examples he lists Betz, Conzelmann, Craig, Davis, Derret, Funk, Hoover, Kee, Koester, Ladd, Lorenzen, Ludemann, Meier, Oden, Osborne, Pannenberg, Sanders, Spong, Stuhlmacher and Wedderburn. We may add Allison, Bryskog, Ehrman and Wright to Habermas’s list.

There is significant heterogeneity within this group that includes atheists, agnostics, cynics, revisionists, moderates and conservatives. With James, we have significant evidence that indicates he and his brothers were not among Jesus’ followers. However, sometime after the crucifixion of Jesus, James became a follower of his brother, a leader in the church Jesus had started and finally died as a Christian martyr.

The best explanation for this change of heart is that James came to believe that his brother had risen from the dead. It is probable that James had an experience that he perceived as being a postresurrection appearance of Jesus. However, it cannot be stated with certainty whether his conversion was prior to the experience or resulted from it.”

Something caused James to go from skeptic to believer. If James had seen his crucified brother alive days later, we could all understand why he converted. Absent the resurrection, there seems to be every reason for James to remain a skeptic the rest of his life. After all, following Jesus was a death sentence for most of the apostles.

Commentary on Acts 12 (Peter Escapes Prison)

Chapter 12 opens with the second recorded martyrdom in the book of Acts. Herod Agrippa I executes James, the son of Zebedee and brother of John, in the year A.D. 42 or 43, roughly ten years after Jesus’ resurrection. He dies by the sword, which likely means he was beheaded. John Polhill, in vol. 26, Acts, The New American Commentary, explains who Herod Agrippa is:

Agrippa was the grandson of Herod the Great. His father, Aristobulus, had been executed in 7 b.c. by his grandfather for fear that he might usurp his throne. After his father’s death, while still a child, Agrippa was sent to Rome with his mother, where he was reared and educated along with the children of the Roman aristocracy. These childhood friendships eventually led to his ruling over a Jewish kingdom nearly the extent of that of his grandfather. In a.d. 37 the emperor Caligula gave him the title of king and made him ruler over the territories formerly ruled by his uncle Philip, lands in the Transjordan and the Ten Cities (Decapolis) north of Galilee. In a.d. 39 Caligula extended Agrippa’s rule by giving him Galilee and Perea, the territory of his uncle Antipas, who had been sent into exile. Finally, when his former schoolmate Claudius became emperor in a.d. 41, he was given rule of Judea and Samaria, which had been under Roman procurators for thirty-five years. He was truly ‘king of the Jews’ now, ruling over all of Judea, Samaria, Galilee, the Transjordan, and the Decapolis.

James is the first of the twelve apostles to be martyred. It is interesting to note that there is not any record of the other apostles replacing him as they replaced Judas. Perhaps it was not practical to find another disciple of Jesus who participated in his three-year ministry, or maybe the remaining Eleven saw no need for a replacement, as this is some ten years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Seeing that the execution of James pleased the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, Herod Agrippa then arrests the leader of the apostles, Peter. Herod incarcerates him during the eight-day Feast of Unleavened Bread, and his plan seems to be to hold a public trial and execution of Peter after the Feast ends. Until the conclusion of the Feast, Peter is imprisoned and guarded by four groups of four soldiers (a squad consists of four soldiers). Each squad would take turns guarding him, likely on three-hour rotations. During each rotation, two soldiers would be chained to him, and two others would stand guard outside the prison cell. Most scholars think that Peter’s prison cell was inside the Fortress of Antonia, located at the northwest corner of the Jerusalem temple.

The church in Jerusalem is praying earnestly for Peter and the night before Herod is to present Peter publicly, their prayers are answered. An angel of the Lord appears with bright light in the prison cell. The angel then strikes Peter with great force to wake him up!

When Peter awakens, the angel gives him step-by-step instructions. Peter’s chains fall off, and he then follows the angel through several doors/gates, past sleeping guards, and finally out of prison and into the streets of Jerusalem. Up to this point, Peter believes he is just dreaming or having a vision. But once he finds himself outside and the angel departed, he realizes that God has saved him from the public trial and execution which Herod was planning.

Once outside the fortress, Peter rushes to the nearest home of his Christian brothers and sisters. This happens to be the home of Mary, mother of John Mark. Clinton Arnold, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), comments:

Luke here introduces a young man who will become a significant figure in the book of Acts and early Christianity. Like Saul/Paul, he has both a Jewish name (John) and a Roman name (Mark). Paul identifies him as the cousin of Barnabas (Col. 4:10). After returning from Jerusalem to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, he became one of their missionary traveling companions (Acts 12:25; 13:5). For some unstated reason, he left them in the middle of their journey and returned to Jerusalem (13:13). This led to a sharp disagreement between Paul and Barnabas over Mark’s suitability for ongoing missionary service—an irresolvable disagreement that led to each of these leaders going separate ways (15:37-41). Whatever misgivings Paul has about Mark later evaporated, for Paul instructed Timothy to ‘get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry’ (2 Tim. 4:11).

John Mark is also thought to be the author of the Gospel of Mark. The fourth-century church historian Eusebius writes: “When, at Rome, Peter had openly preached the word and by the spirit had proclaimed the gospel, the large audience urged Mark, who had followed him for a long time and remembered what had been said, to write it all down. This he did, making his Gospel available to all who wanted it.”

When Peter arrives, he knocks on the door of the gateway into the courtyard of the house (Mary is obviously wealthy). A servant named Rhoda comes to the gate, hears Peter’s voice, and then runs back inside. She tells the Christians gathered in the house that Peter is outside and they tell her she is crazy! They assume that Peter has died and his personal angel is visiting them, not Peter himself.

According to Arnold,

Many Jews believed in the notion of an angel who was closely associated with a person and could even take on that person’s appearance. Note the book of Tobit, where the angel Raphael took on the disguise of Azarias (a relative of Tobit’s) and became a guide for Tobit’s son, Tobias (Tobit 5:4-16). Jesus himself spoke of angels associated with children: ‘See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven’ (Matt. 18:10). This led to a belief in the church about angels assigned to people for their lifetimes and who from time to time intervene on their behalf.

Finally, after Peter continues knocking on the door, they open it and are amazed that he is alive and standing right in front of them. Peter hushes them and tells how the angel saved him from Herod. Peter decides that he must leave Jerusalem immediately, but before he leaves, he says, “Tell these things to James and to the brothers.” The James to whom Peter refers is the half-brother of Jesus, who by this time had become a leader in the Jerusalem church.

The next day Herod discovers that Peter has escaped, and after questioning the soldiers who were watching him, has them all executed. This was a common practice among Romans. If a prisoner escaped, those in charge of his incarceration might be put to death in the prisoner’s place.

Luke records that Herod leaves Jerusalem for Caesarea. Months later, on the day Herod is publicly announcing a trade deal with the cities of Tyre and Sidon, Herod is acclaimed to be a god by the people in the assembled crowd. According to Luke, God strikes Herod with a fatal gastrointestinal disease (worms) because he accepted the crowd’s worship instead of giving God glory.

The Jewish historian Josephus corroborates Luke’s account of Herod Agrippa’s death. Josephus writes that Herod suffered for five days before he died. He dates Herod’s death in AD 44.

John Polhill notes that the events of Acts 12 continue a familiar motif established earlier in the book:

There is both mercy and judgment with the Lord. The Spirit blessed the faithful Christians with miraculous works and great growth (5:12–16). The same Spirit brought judgment to Ananias and Sapphira (5:1–11). The Lord’s angel delivered Peter from mortal danger (12:6–17). The Lord’s angel struck Agrippa dead for all his arrogance (12:20–23). He did not ‘give praise to God’—neither in his acceptance of the people’s blasphemous acclamation nor in his persecution of God’s people.

Commentary on Acts 10 (Gentile Pentecost)

Peter and several of his companions travel to Caesarea to Cornelius’ home. Clinton Arnold, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary) notes that “six fellow Jewish believers from Joppa accompany Peter (see 11:12). This is significant because they will witness the Gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit and will be able to corroborate Peter’s story to Jewish believers in Jerusalem.”

They arrive the next day. Cornelius has invited close friends and relatives to hear what God’s messenger has to say. When Peter comes, Cornelius falls at his feet, as if he is worshiping Peter. Peter quickly corrects Cornelius and tells him that he is not to be worshiped because he is human, just as Cornelius.

Peter enters the house and reminds those inside that Jews are not allowed to enter the house of a Gentile, but that God showed him that this prohibition is no longer in effect. Clinton Arnold explains that

Jews typically did not enter a Gentile home (even that of a God-fearer) because they did not practice the same level of caution as observant Jews did to ensure that only kosher foods were eaten and that they were prepared in the proper way. There was also always the risk that the home may have had a household idol or other trappings of pagan idolatry. The best way for a Jew to be protected was never to enter a Gentile home.

So why did Peter believe the prohibition to no longer be in effect? John Polhill, in vol. 26, Acts, The New American Commentary, explains how Peter has come to this conclusion based on his previous vision.

Actually, Peter’s vision had only related to unclean foods, but he had understood fully the symbolism of the creatures in the sheet. All were God’s creatures; all were declared clean. God had led him to Cornelius, and God had declared Cornelius clean. The old purity laws could no longer separate Jew from Gentile. Since God had shown himself no respecter of persons, neither could Peter be one anymore. Still, Peter had not realized the full implication of God’s sending him to Cornelius. He did not yet understand that God intended him to accept Cornelius as a Christian brother.

He then asks Cornelius why he has sent for him. Cornelius recounts the story of the angel visiting him (this is the third time Luke has told the story), and then he asks Peter to share with them what God has commanded.

In verses 34-43 we have a summary of Peter’s message to this house full of Roman Gentiles. First, Peter tells them that God shows no partiality based on nationality or ethnicity. God will accept anyone who fears Him and does what is right. Arnold writes:

This is not a new idea in Judaism; it has always been in the Torah: ‘For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes’ (Deut. 10:17; see also 2 Chron. 19:7). This was a truth that many Jews had lost sight of, including Peter.

But is this “acceptance” equivalent to being saved from the final judgment? No. A person must take a further step to be saved. Peter continues: God sent the man Jesus Christ to bring peace to the nation of Israel. Peter assumes that his Roman audience in Caesarea has heard about the life of Jesus, a remarkable testament to how word about Jesus had spread. He reminds them that John baptized Jesus and that God anointed him with the Holy Spirit. Jesus then went about healing many people from suffering caused by the devil. Peter was a witness to all of this.

Arnold notes that

Peter’s words here echo and fulfill Isaiah 61:1-2: ‘The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.’ Jesus read these words at the outset of his ministry when he spoke in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:17-21).

Jesus was then crucified (hung on a tree), but God raised him from the dead on the third day. After he was raised, he appeared to a select group of people who also ate and drank with him. Peter specifically mentions eating and drinking with Jesus to clarify that Jesus physically and bodily rose from the dead. This was no ghost or apparition. Jesus commanded his disciples to teach that Jesus has been appointed, by God, to be the end-time judge. Anyone who believes in Jesus will receive forgiveness for his sins and escape the final judgment.

While Peter is speaking, he is interrupted by the Holy Spirit pouring into the Gentiles in Cornelius’ house. The Jewish companions of Peter are amazed at what is happening. Arnold explains:

The Torah-observant Jews recognize the remarkable significance of this event. God is now accepting Gentiles on the same basis that he did the Jews—on the sole basis of believing in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. These Gentile believers will not be required to be circumcised, offer sacrifices, observe the Jewish festivals, or keep Jewish dietary laws as a means of entering or maintaining their position in the new people of God.

Seeing this, Peter commands his companions to baptize these Gentiles in the name of Jesus Christ. Darrell Bock, in Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, summarizes:

God directs an epoch-making event in which Gentiles are accepted in fellowship and receive the gospel. Their faith leads to the gift of the Spirit, the sign that the new era has arrived. In addition, they are not circumcised and yet table fellowship and full hospitality between Jews and Gentiles ensues.

The Trinity is quite active here (Gaventa 2003: 173–74). God takes the initiative. Jesus Christ is at the center of the plan. The Spirit confirms that all of this is God’s work. The actions that take place represent the act and will of God working in harmony. The church does not lead here but follows God’s leading, thereby learning a great deal about how God views people.

Jews and Gentiles are equal in Christ (Eph. 2:11–22). Their need and the answer to that need are the same. This is why judgment and accountability before God are keys to Peter’s speech.

Must New Testament Believers Obey the Dietary Laws of Leviticus 11?

A minority of New Testament (NT) believers still adhere to the dietary laws of Leviticus 11 (e.g., Seventh-Day Adventists). Are they correct? Should we all be abstaining from pork, shellfish, and the other foods banned in Leviticus 11?

No. The NT clearly teaches that the distinction between clean and unclean meat is gone. Several passages teach this concept.

First is Acts 10:10-16 where Peter receives a vision from God:

And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance  and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth.  In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air.  And there came a voice to him: ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’  But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.’  And the voice came to him again a second time, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’  This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.

Second is Romans 14:14 where Paul states, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.”

Third is 1 Timothy 4:1-5 where Paul writes,

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons,  through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared,  who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.  For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving,  for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.

Fourth, and most importantly, Jesus gives his views on clean and unclean foods in Mark 7:14-23:

And he called the people to him again and said to them, ‘Hear me, all of you, and understand:  There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.’  And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable.  And he said to them, ‘Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him,  since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.)  And he said, ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him.  For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery,  coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’

The bottom line is that Jesus and his apostles clearly proclaimed the dietary laws in Leviticus 11 to be null and void. Those laws were in force for national Israel, but upon the arrival of Jesus, they were abrogated for new covenant believers.

Commentary on Acts 10 (Peter Sees a Vision in Joppa)

The events of chapter 10 take place in roughly AD 40, seven to ten years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Luke introduces a Gentile named Cornelius. Cornelius lives in Caesarea and is a Roman military officer in command of roughly 100 soldiers. Caesarea is located about 60 miles northwest of Jerusalem (see map below). John Polhill, in vol. 26, Acts, The New American Commentary, explains the significance of the city:

The place of his residence is of some importance, since Caesarea was from a.d. 6 the provincial capital and place of residence of the Roman governor. Unlike Lydda and Joppa, which were mainly inhabited by Jews, Caesarea was a Hellenistic-style city with a dominant population of Gentiles. Originally a small town named Strato’s Tower, it was rebuilt on a grand style by Herod the Great, complete with a man-made harbor, a theater, an amphitheater, a hippodrome, and a temple dedicated to Caesar. There was a substantial Jewish minority there and considerable friction between the Jews and the larger Gentile community.

Cornelius is described as a God-fearer, which usually indicates that he worships Yahweh, but he has not been circumcised or formally accepted into Judaism by the Jews of his community. Even so, he expresses his devotion through generous giving to the poor and prayer.

During his daily 3 pm prayer time, he sees a vision of an angel. The angel tells him that his almsgiving and prayers have brought joy to God. The angel then instructs Cornelius to send men to Joppa (see map above) and find a man called Peter. Peter is staying in a house owned by Simon the tanner, and it is located near the sea. They are to bring Peter back to Caesarea. Upon hearing this message, Cornelius gathers two of his servants and one his most devout soldiers and sends them to Joppa to find Peter.

The scene then shifts to Peter. As the three men are traveling to Joppa the next day, Peter is on the roof of Simon’s home praying at noon. While he is praying and waiting for food to be prepared, he falls into a trance and sees the heavens open up. Falling from the heavens is a giant sheet held up by its four corners. On the sheet are all sorts of “animals and reptiles and birds of the air.”

Peter then hears a voice which tells him to kill and eat the animals on the sheet. Peter refuses because to eat unclean animals is a violation of the Law. We can assume that either all the animals in the vision are unclean, or at least some of them are. Leviticus 11 clearly prescribes which animals are clean, and may be eaten, and which animals are unclean, and may not be eaten by Jews. The heavenly voice speaks out again and commands Peter not to call impure (common) what God has made clean. The same conversation occurs two more times to prove to Peter that this vision is truly from God.

To the modern Western mind, the distinction between clean and unclean foods may seem unimportant, but that was not the case for first-century Jews. John Polhill explains that the “Jewish food laws presented a real problem for Jewish Christians in the outreach to the Gentiles. One simply could not dine in a Gentile’s home without inevitably transgressing those laws either by the consumption of unclean flesh or of flesh that had not been prepared in a kosher, i.e., ritually proper, fashion (cf. Acts 15:20).”

Darrell Bock, in Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, expands on the connection between food and fellowship:

The two concepts of food and of table fellowship as signs of accepting Gentiles are related, for associating with Gentiles and eating what they may have prepared as hosts would in normal Jewish thinking entail the probable risk of uncleanness. In addition, the two ideas are closely tied together in the law (Lev. 20:24b–26). Indeed, Polhill (1992: 255) argues that ‘purity distinctions and human discrimination are of a single piece.’ The food laws underscore Israel’s separation from the nations. By making unclean food clean, God is showing how table fellowship and acceptance of Gentiles are more easily accomplished in the new era. The vision symbolizes that what separated Jews from Gentiles is now removed, as Peter will explain in Acts 10:28. It ‘frees Peter from any scruples about going to a Gentile home and eating whatever might be set before him’ (so Marshall 1980: 186; also Bruce 1990: 256; a similar idea is expressed by Paul in 1 Cor. 10:27). God uses the picture of unclean food now made clean to portray unclean Gentiles now made clean. That such previous lawbreaking visions point to the act being carried out also shows that food and people are in view here.

After experiencing the vision, Peter is perplexed as to the meaning. As he is pondering, the three men sent by Cornelius arrive at the gate of Simon’s courtyard. Lest Peter not respond as God wills, the Holy Spirit says to Peter, “Behold, three men are looking for you. Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.”

Peter walks down the stairs from the roof and greets the three men. He asks why they have come. The men respond, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” At this point, Peter is undoubtedly connecting the dots between his vision and what God wants him to do.

The first thing Peter must do is invite the men into Simon’s home so that they can rest for the evening. Darrell Bock notes that even Peter inviting these Gentiles into his home is questionable for devout Jews. “This would not be viewed as containing as much risk of uncleanness as a Jew going to a Gentile home, but it is still a significant step. It probably would be regarded as risking potential exposure to uncleanness by the more scrupulous observers of law.” This is the first step in breaking down the divisions between Jew and Gentile.

As a final note, the reader should pay close attention to the fact that every step of this process has carefully steered by God. John Polhill writes, “With Cornelius it had been an angel; with Peter’s vision, a voice from heaven. Now [with Peter again] it was the Holy Spirit. All three represent the same reality—the direction of God. Nothing was left to chance. All was coordinated by the divine leading.”

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.