Category Archives: Bible Interpretation

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.

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).

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.

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.”

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.

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).