Category Archives: Sunday School

Commentary on Revelation 1 (John’s First Vision)

The traditional view of the book of Revelation is that it was written by John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, the son of Zebedee, brother of James, and writer of the fourth Gospel and three letters in the New Testament. The book is most commonly dated around AD 95, although a significant minority of scholars date the book to AD 69.

The immediate context for the author and initial hearers of the book, according to A. Boyd Luter Jr. in The Apologetics Study Bible, was “a group of churches (1: 11; chaps. 2– 3) experiencing selective persecution (2: 9-10,13) in the midst of doctrinal and practical problems (2: 6,13-15,20-23), set against the backdrop of unseen but powerful spiritual warfare (2: 10; 9: 1,11; 12: 3-4,9-10; 20: 2).”

Regarding literary genre, Craig Keener, in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, writes:

Revelation mixes elements of Old Testament prophecy with a heavy dose of the apocalyptic genre, a style of writing that grew out of elements of Old Testament prophecy. Although nearly all its images have parallels in the biblical prophets, the images most relevant to late-first-century readers, which were prominent in popular Jewish revelations about the end time, are stressed most heavily. Chapters 2–3 are ‘oracular letters,’ a kind of letter occurring especially in the Old Testament (e.g., Jer 29:1–23, 29–32) but also attested on some Greek pottery fragments.

Steve Gregg, in Revelation: Four Views, adds:

Unlike most other books of the New Testament, Revelation does not contain even one direct quotation from the Old Testament. However, there are hundreds of allusions to familiar images and phrases from the Old Testament, and from the New Testament as well (especially the other writings of John). It has been calculated that concepts and imagery are drawn from Isaiah (79 times), Daniel (53 times), Ezekiel (48 times), Psalms (43 times), Exodus (27 times), Jeremiah (22 times), Zechariah (15 times), Amos (9 times), and Joel (8 times). The principal historical matrices from which the images frequently are taken are: a) the Exodus, b) the Babylonian exile, and c) the life of Jesus.

The last few chapters of Revelation describe the end of the world and the return of Jesus Christ to reign over a new heaven and new earth. Thus, John starts with the hardships and sins predominating the first-century churches and extends these topics all the way out to the ultimate end of the age alluded to so often in the rest of the Bible. Keener writes:

Revelation provides an eternal perspective, by emphasizing such themes as the antagonism of the world in rebellion against God toward a church obedient to God’s will; the unity of the church’s worship with heaven’s worship; that victory depends on Christ’s finished work, not on human circumstances; that Christians must be ready to face death for Christ’s honor; that representatives of every people will ultimately stand before his throne; that the imminent hope of his return is worth more than all this world’s goods; and so forth. From the beginning, the Old Testament covenant and promise had implied a hope for the future of God’s people. When Israel was confronted with the question of individuals’ future, the Old Testament doctrines of justice and hope led them to views like the resurrection (Is 26:19; Dan 12:2). The future hope is further developed and embroidered with the imagery of Revelation.

The first three verses in Revelation form a prologue which some scholars believe was written by John’s followers after he died since it is in the third person. However, it also possible John wrote the prologue himself.

In verses 1-2, the author tells us that the words captured in the book were given by God the Father to Jesus, who gave the words to an angel, who gave the words to John, who finally gave the words to the people of God. The words of this book come in an unbroken chain from the sovereign Creator of the universe.

Also, the things recorded herein “must soon take place” (verse 1) and the “time is near” (verse 3). Those who argue that Revelation should be dated in AD 69 claim that many, if not all, of the prophecies in the book were fulfilled when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by Titus in AD 70. Thus, the events predicted in Revelation did indeed happen very soon after the book was written and delivered to the churches.

Those who date the book around AD 95 interpret “must soon take place” and the “time is near” differently. George Eldon Ladd, in A Commentary on the Revelation of John, is representative of this view:

We pointed out in the introduction that the Old Testament prophets blended the near and the distant perspectives so as to form a single canvas. Biblical prophecy is not primarily three-dimensional but two; it has height and breadth but is little concerned about depth, i.e., the chronology of future events. There is in biblical prophecy a tension between the immediate and the distant future; the distant is viewed through the transparency of the immediate. It is true that the early church lived in expectancy of the return of the Lord, and it is the nature of biblical prophecy to make it possible for every generation to live in expectancy of the end. To relax and say ‘where is the promise of his coming?’ is to become a scoffer of divine truth. The ‘biblical’ attitude is ‘take heed, watch, for you do not know when the time will come’ (Mark 13:33).

Finally, in verse 3 the author blesses the person who will stand in front of the seven churches and read aloud the book. Less than 50% of people could read in the first century, so it was customary practice to read aloud to a congregation the entire contents of a letter or book. The author also blesses the person who listens to the words in Revelation and obeys them.

In verses 4-8 we have the greeting from John. He is addressing seven specific churches in Asia (although the contents were meant to be shared by all churches) and he extends grace and peace from the Father, Holy Spirit, and Son. The Father is “him who is and who was and who is to come,” the Holy Spirit is referenced as “the seven spirits who are before his throne,” and the Son is “Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.”

Ladd expands on the reference to the Holy Spirit:

From the seven spirits means from the Holy Spirit in his sevenfold fullness (cf. 3:1; 4:5; 5:6). Some have seen here a reference to angelic beings; but since the preceding phrase refers to God the Father and the following phrase to God the Son, it is certain that John included a reference to God the Holy Spirit, thus including all persons of the Godhead. In other places the New Testament speaks of the Holy Spirit in his plurality of functions (cf. Heb. 2:4; 1 Cor. 12:11; 14:32; Rev. 22:6). The source of the idea appears to be Zech. 4, where the prophet described a candlestick with seven lamps which are the eyes of the Lord ranging over the whole earth. The meaning of the vision was, ‘Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts’ (Zech. 4:8).

Verses 5-7 then give a prolonged word of praise and worship to Jesus Christ specifically. John lists the following attributes of Jesus: 1) He loves us, 2) He freed us from sin by dying on the cross, 3) He is one day coming in judgment over the entire world.

Verse 8 reiterates the divine source and authority of John’s words. Ladd explains:

Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet and therefore include all that is contained between them. God is the absolute beginning and the end, and therefore Lord of all that happens in human history. He is at the same time the eternal one, the transcendent one, who is unaffected by the conflicts of history, the one who is and who was and who is to come. As the one who is to come, he will yet visit men to bring history to its divinely decreed consummation. The Almighty can be better translated ‘the All-Ruler.’

Verses 9-20 contain the first vision John receives. John tells his readers that he was on the island of Patmos because of his teaching about Jesus. John was most likely banished to Patmos for about a year. Grant Osborne, in Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, provides background:

Most likely John was temporarily banished there for proclaiming the gospel (see below). Ancient writers (e.g., Tacitus, Pliny) tell us that Patmos, a volcanic and rocky island, was one of three among the Sporades chain in the Aegean Sea. It was about ten miles long and six wide and was located thirty-seven miles southwest of Miletus, a harbor city near Ephesus. Therefore it is likely that Eusebius (Eccl. Hist. 3.18–20) was correct when he said John was banished there (according to him, in the fourteenth year [a.d. 95] of Domitian’s reign). Life there was not too harsh, as indicated by its decent-size population and two gymnasia as well as a temple of Artemis. Thus John would have lived a fairly normal life as an exile on that island. He was likely there only a short time and was allowed to go to Ephesus in a general amnesty for exiles by the emperor Nerva in a.d. 96 after Domitian died (see Aune 1997: 77; Carroll, ABD 5:178–79).

One Sunday, as John is worshiping, he hears a loud voice behind him: “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”

There were more than seven churches in Asia, so why these seven? Osborne explains:

The order of the cities is significant, for they form the circular route of a letter carrier beginning at Ephesus and moving first north to Smyrna and to Pergamum, then turning southeast to Thyatira, south to Sardis, east to Philadelphia, and finally southeast to Laodicea. Also, we must ask why these particular cities are chosen. Troas and Colosse were critical NT centers, and Magnesia and Tralles were more important cities than Philadelphia or Thyatira. The best solution is still probably that of William Ramsay, as argued further by Hemer (1986: 14–15). These seven cities formed a natural center of communication for the rest of the province, since they were in order of sequence on an inner circular route through the territory. There is good reason to suppose that since Pauline times they had become ‘organizational and distributive centers’ from which messages would disseminate to the other churches of the province. DeSilva (1990: 193) also points out that these particular cities were chosen partly for their relationship to the imperial cult. All but Thyatira had temples dedicated to the emperors, and all but Philadelphia and Laodicea had imperial priests and altars. I would add one other point. They also represented the problems of the other churches in the area (note how each letter includes ‘Hear what the Spirit says to the churches’). As we will see, each town had its own particular set of problems but also served as examples for the other churches.

John turns around to see who is speaking and he sees seven lampstands which he later learns represent the seven churches. Note the connection between the seven lampstands and the seven candles of the lampstand (the menorah) in the tabernacle constructed in Exodus 25. These seven lampstands depict the churches as shining lights for God in the midst of the world.

Verses 13-16 then describe a “son of man” who is standing amid the lampstands (churches). This son of man, of course, refers to Jesus. John now uses several images to communicate important characteristics of Jesus, as he sees him in the vision. These images closely resemble the divine messenger sent to Daniel in Daniel 10:5-6, but they also reflect other biblical passage (noted below):

  1. The long robe and golden sash around his chest likely point to his high rank (only nobility would wear a sash around their chests instead of waist) and possibly priesthood. (Ex 28:4; Dan 10:5)
  2. His white hair is emblematic of age, honor, and wisdom. (Dan 7:9; Mark 9:3)
  3. His eyes of fire convey his piercing and all-knowing vision. (Dan 10:6)
  4. His burnished bronze feet emphasize his glory and strength, and his ability to render divine judgment. (Ezek 1:7; Dan 10:6)
  5. His voice of roaring waters signifies power and strength. (Ezek 1:24)
  6. The seven stars in his right hand indicate his complete control over the seven angels of the seven churches. (Ps 110:1; Matt 26:64)
  7. The sword coming out of his mouth symbolizes his words and then acts of judgment. (Is 11:4; Luke 2:35)
  8. His radiant face sums up the other images and reminds us of Jesus’ divine glory. (Matt 17:2; Ps 84:11; Is 60:19)

John’s reaction to seeing the glorified Jesus is natural: He falls at “his feet as though dead.” In verses 17-18, Jesus lays his hand on John and tells him not to fear. Jesus is the “first and the last,” just as the Father is the “Alpha and Omega.” Jesus reminds John that he died, but was resurrected, and will continue living forever. Jesus now holds the keys to the land of the dead. He can open the gate and allow the dead to return to life, and this is exactly what he will one day do.

Jesus then instructs John to write down everything he has seen and will see in the visions he is receiving. Everything must be recorded. Finally, in verse 20 Jesus explains that the seven lampstands are the seven churches and the seven stars are the seven angels of the seven churches.

There is much disagreement over what the seven angels represent. George Ladd weighs the different views:

The expression, the angels of the seven churches, represented by the seven stars in the hand of Christ, is difficult, especially since each of the seven letters was addressed to the angel of each respective church. This fact has led many commentators to conclude that the angel stood for the bishop of the church. This would be a good solution for the problem except for the fact that it violates the New Testament usage. Aggelos was not used of Christian leaders, and in the seven letters, neither angels nor bishops were rebuked. Another meaning of aggelos is ‘messenger,’ and the ‘angels’ are taken to be the seven messengers who carried the letters to the seven churches of Asia. If this is so, it is difficult to see why the letters were addressed to the messengers rather than to the churches themselves. The proper meaning of the word is angel, and the natural idea is that churches on earth have angels in heaven who represent them. However, the feature of angels symbolizing or representing men is lacking in all apocalyptic literature. Some have felt that the angels are guardian angels of the churches. It is best to understand this as a rather unusual symbol to represent the heavenly or supernatural character of the church.

Commentary on Acts 28 (Paul in Rome)

After the 276 people aboard the boat swim safely to shore, they are greeted by island natives, and they discover that they have landed on the isle of Malta. The storm they endured for two weeks carried them exactly where they needed to go to get to Rome (see map below).

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

Malta, or Melitē as it is called in Greek, is a Mediterranean island lying fifty-eight miles south of the island of Sicily and 180 miles north of Libya. It measures about seventeen miles at its longest distance from southeast to northwest and about nine miles at its widest distance from east to west. The island became part of the Roman empire in 218 B.C. and was part of the Roman province of Sicily.

The natives light fires on the beach to warm the cold and wet visitors. Paul picks up a pile of sticks and within the bundle of wood is a poisonous snake in a cold-blooded stupor. The heat of the fire revives the snake, and it bites Paul. The natives expect Paul to swell up and then die, but instead, nothing happens.

When the viper first bites Paul, the Maltese assume Paul is suffering divine judgment for a crime, but when he survives, they change their minds and decide he is a god (similar reaction to the Lystrans). God will allow nothing to stop Paul from getting to Rome!

Paul then heals the father of the “chief man of the island” of dysentery. Seeing this miracle, many other Maltese bring their sick to Paul to be healed. Even though there is no mention of Paul evangelizing the people of Malta, we can assume that he did so. Today, the people of Malta proudly proclaim their Christian heritage and have preserved historical sites where Paul allegedly stayed during his three months on the island. John Polhill, in vol. 26, Acts, The New American Commentary, writes:

The emphasis on the Maltese hospitality is striking. It is recurrent throughout the account of Paul’s stay on Malta: the Maltese welcomed the shipwrecked party with ‘unusual kindness’ (v. 2); Publius received Paul’s group and entertained them ‘hospitably’ (v. 7); on their departure, the travelers were ‘honored’ and amply fitted for their journey (v. 10). It is the same sort of hospitality (philanthrōpōs) shown by the Christians of Sidon (27:3). Perhaps in this manner Luke was drawing attention to the fact that simple pagan ‘barbarians’ like the Maltese have a genuine potential for becoming Christians. Their hospitality would in any event be in stark contrast with the reception Paul found from the Jews of Rome.

In February of AD 60, when it is safe to sail again, Paul’s party departs for Rome. The route is marked on the map above. They first travel to a port on Sicily, then to a port at the southern tip of Italy, and finally to the major shipping port of Puteoli. Here everyone debarks from the ship, as they will travel the rest of the way by foot.

Christians in Puteoli warmly greet Paul and his companions, and the Roman centurion Julius allows Paul to stay with these brothers and sisters for one week before they begin the five to six-day journey to Rome. Along the way to Rome, two distinct groups of Christians come southeast to intercept and encourage Paul. One group meets them in a town called Forum of Appius, which is about forty miles south of Rome. Another group meets them in The Three Taverns, a place about thirty miles south of Rome. Once Paul reaches Rome, he can rent an apartment if a Roman soldier stays with him at all times. The soldier is frequently, if not always, chained to Paul so that Paul cannot escape.

Clinton Arnold describes the city of Rome (population of 1 million) in AD 60:

Rome was the political, economic, and military center of the enormous Roman empire. It was the wealthiest and most powerful city in the world in the first century.

The city was fifteen miles inland from the Tyrrhenian Sea and situated along the banks of the Tiber river. It was divided into fourteen different regions, the most well-known being the Circus Maximus and the Forum Romanum. The perimeter of the city measured just over thirteen miles.

The forum was the hub of the political, religious, and economic life of Rome. Here the Senate building was located as well as the Mamertime prison, where prisoners were kept prior to their executions. The Colosseum had not yet been built (it was completed in A.D. 80). Throughout the city were numerous temples dedicated to many deities and to the deified Caesars. The palaces of the Caesars were in the Circus Maximus and crowned the Palatine Hill.

Only a small percentage of people in Rome enjoyed its great wealth. Many slaves and poor people lived in Rome, dwelling in large blocks of apartment buildings that ranged from three to five stories in size. Some scholars have estimated that as many as two hundred thousand people relied on a government welfare system that provided free grain to the unemployed masses of the city.

Three days after Paul arrives, he summons the leaders of the local Jewish synagogues to his apartment. Paul addresses the leaders and makes the following points: 1) Paul has done nothing against the Jews or their customs, 2) The Romans wanted to free him, 3) The Jewish opposition in Jerusalem led to his appeal to Caesar, and 4) He is a prisoner for believing in the hope of Israel (Jesus).

The Jewish leaders tell Paul that they know nothing about him, but they do have a negative opinion of the Christian sect (they still see Christianity as a Jewish sect). However, they agree to come back with even more fellow Jews to hear him out.

On the appointed day, the Jews come in substantial numbers, and Paul speaks to them about Jesus, his resurrection, and his appointment by God as Messiah and Lord (the consistent message of the apostles). Jesus is the one who was prophesied in the Scriptures. Paul undoubtedly provides ample biblical evidence to the crowd in his home, but only some accept what he is saying. The majority reject his message, and Paul quotes Isaiah 6:9-10 to show them that God Himself predicted that they would not receive the message Paul is giving them about Jesus. Paul ends his plea by noting that instead of Jews, Gentiles are receiving the message in considerable numbers. John Polhill elaborates on the use of Isaiah 6:9-10:

Isaiah 6:9f. was a key Old Testament text for the early Christians as they sought to come to terms with the Jewish rejection of the gospel. It occurs in the Synoptic tradition among the sayings of Jesus with reference to the failure of the Jews to understand and appropriate the message of his parables (Matt 13:14f.; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10). When in Rom 9–11 Paul wrestled with the riddle of the Jewish rejection of the gospel, he cited this same passage of Isaiah (Rom 11:8). Isaiah’s words were seen as a real prophecy of the Jewish obduracy. They did not, however, explain it. It remained something of a riddle. In Rom 11 Paul suggested that perhaps the hardening was temporary, a time allowing for the message to be taken to the Gentiles, that finally in the mystery of God’s plan of salvation there would be a great turning of his people to Christ. Here in Acts he provided no such solutions. The Jewish rejection was a reality and a riddle. To a great extent it remains so—how the gospel of God’s salvation which was foreshadowed in the Jewish Scriptures, fulfilled in a Jewish Messiah, and first proclaimed by Jewish heralds like Paul would ultimately be embraced not by the Jews but primarily by Gentiles.

The book ends with Luke telling his readers that Paul remains two years in Rome, under house arrest, speaking and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ. The gospel finally reached the “ends of the earth”! Darrell Bock, in Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, reminds us what we’ve learned from the book of Acts:

In sum, the book of Acts, a book of witnesses to the risen Jesus, ends with one of the key witnesses living out his calling despite having suffered unjustly. We see the continued tragic nature of Jewish unbelief, yet Paul continues to keep an open door to anyone who will listen to him and consider his message. Paul loves his enemies, whom he views as brothers who have lost their way. We see what makes for good evangelism: (1) a confidence and readiness to share because God is sovereign, (2) a focus on God and God’s kingdom program through Jesus, (3) an open door to any who will hear, and (4) a recognition that evangelism and mission are a priority, even the most fundamental calling of the church in the world (Fernando 1998: 628–32). Nothing, including prison, persecution, or possible death, has hindered Paul’s ability to minister and preach the message. We are to marvel at how God has protected Paul and accomplished his word (Stott 1990: 402). We also can see in this book that Paul suffered well. He kept the faith and continued to serve, living out his call.

Commentary on Acts 27 (Paul Sails to Rome)

During the years of AD 52-57, Paul travels extensively through Asia Minor and modern-day Greece. After five years of evangelism, his third missionary journey ends with him returning to Jerusalem (see the map just below). Paul’s Christian brothers warn him not to go back to Jerusalem, as they fear he will be imprisoned, but Paul insists on returning.

Shortly after his arrival in Jerusalem, Paul is arrested in AD 57. Not satisfied with his incarceration, some forty Jews, with the approval of the Sanhedrin, plot to kill Paul. The Roman authorities, however, are tipped off by Paul’s nephew and Paul is removed to the city of Caesarea. Here he appears before Governor Felix. Felix interrogates Paul and finds him to be innocent. Zondervan’s NIV, The Story, describes the following two years in Caesarea:

Paul’s arrest resulted from anything but criminal behavior, and the years he spent waiting for Roman justice would have broken most people. None of the officials he faced could find legal fault with him (the charge was sedition), yet no one would release him for fear of political repercussions. The Roman governor Felix held Paul in custody at Caesarea for two years, sending for him frequently in hope that Paul would offer him a bribe. Finally, Felix was recalled to Rome for failing, among other things, to control local insurrection.

The Jewish leaders immediately asked the new governor, Festus, to transfer Paul from Caesarea to Jerusalem. Paul, a Roman citizen, was forced to exercise his right of appeal to Caesar in order to avoid the grave danger of going to Jerusalem. Next, Paul appeared before King Herod Agrippa II. Agrippa and Festus agreed that Paul wasn’t guilty of any crime. But Paul had made an appeal to Caesar, so the Roman Imperial Court would finally get the privilege of disposing of his case.

Acts 27 picks up the narrative in AD 59 with Paul finally leaving for Rome. Accompanying Paul to Rome are Luke and a Christian brother named Aristarchus. Chapter 27 will give a detailed account of Paul’s harrowing sea adventure which eventually leads to a shipwreck. Luke’s lively and suspenseful account of the journey is meant to demonstrate the reality of God’s control over all circumstances.

In Acts 23:11, Jesus had spoken to Paul, saying, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.” Luke wants to show that despite numerous obstacles, God will keep His promise to Paul. Paul would someday testify about Jesus in Rome.

Paul’s journey to Rome is mapped below. Verses 1-5 describe Paul’s travel from Caesarea to Sidon to Seleucia to Myra. This first leg of the trip likely lasts about two weeks. Once in Myra, Julius, the Roman centurion in charge of Paul and the other prisoners, transfers everyone to a different vessel. The new ship is a grain transport that travels between Egypt and Rome. Egypt was an important supplier of grain to Rome.

The ship heads west toward Cnidus and the island of Crete. On the south side of Crete, at a place called Fair Havens, the boat anchors. The owner of the vessel, the captain, and Julius must now make a difficult decision. Should they stay at Fair Havens during the next several months, or should they seek shelter in a safer port that will better protect them from the winds and sea during the winter months?

Paul argues that they should stay in Fair Havens because it is too dangerous to continue westward. Clinton Arnold, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), writes,

According to ancient sources, sea travel was particularly risky in the fall from September 14 to November 11 and considered extremely dangerous from November 11 to March 10. Visibility (mists and fogs) as well as the constant threat of severe winter storms rendered this period an inadvisable time to travel by sea.

Since Luke mentions the Fast (Day of Atonement) having already occurred, but not the Feast of Tabernacles, it is likely that they arrived in Fair Havens between October 10-15, AD 59. Thus, they were well into the time of year where sea voyages across the Mediterranean were quite dangerous.

Julius heeds the advice of the majority, who decide to coast along the southern coastline of Crete for fifty miles to find a better port (Phoenix) to spend the winter. This voyage should have typically only taken about a day.

Verses 13-44 vividly describe the disaster that befalls the ship of 276 passengers. Within hours of leaving Fair Havens, a violent storm with close to hurricane force winds takes control of the boat, leaving the captain and crew powerless to control its direction. The storm would last approximately two weeks, blowing the ship west across the Mediterranean (see map above).

With no knowledge of where they are, for they cannot see the sun, moon, or stars, and no way to control their direction, the crew takes steps to keep the ship afloat. First, they pull up the lifeboat to keep it from flooding. Second, they fasten ropes around the bow to provide additional support for the frame of the ship. Third, they lower all the sails but one. Fourth, they throw some of the cargo and equipment overboard. John Polhill, in vol. 26, Acts, The New American Commentary, provides some background:

There was really little that an ancient ship could do to fight a violent storm. They surely had the mainsail down and allowed the vessel to be borne along at the whim of the storm. By this time the ship may have developed leaks, and it seemed wise to lighten its load. The excess cargo was jettisoned. Luke did not specify what was thrown from the ship. It may well have been some of the load of grain, though it later became clear that not all of that was jettisoned at this time (cf. v. 38). Still the ship was so threatened that it was necessary on the next day, the third day of the storm, to throw even more overboard. Again it is not clear what was ejected. Luke referred to it as the ship’s ‘equipment’ (skeuēn, v. 19). Smith suggested that it was the ship’s mainyard, the long spar used to support the mainsail. This would explain his reference to the sailors doing this ‘with their own hands.’ There would be no equipment sufficient for jettisoning such a huge beam. It would have taken the combined manual effort of the crew.

After several days, when all hope of survival is lost, Paul receives a message from an angel of God which he relays to everyone on the boat. The angel assures Paul that every person on the ship will be saved, but that the ship itself will be lost.

After two weeks, the ship’s crew suspects they are nearing land, probably because they can hear the surf breaking on rocks. They decide to measure how deep the water is to see how close they are to land. Arnold describes the process:

It must be remembered that there were no sonar or acoustical instruments available to ancient sailors. The ‘sounding’ referred to here was a depth measurement taken by a hand line. A series of lead weights were attached to the end of the line separated by measured intervals. Archaeologists have discovered some of these weights. The bottom of the weight was hollowed out so that it could be filled with tallow or grease. When lowered and drug on the floor of the sea, the grease would pick up rocks and debris.”

They measure 120 feet and then 90 feet before deciding to drop four anchors into the water at the stern of the ship to stop the boat’s forward movement and to keep the bow pointed in the direction of land. That same evening, some of the sailors try to escape the ship in the lifeboat, but Paul makes sure that the Roman soldiers stop them.

Just before dawn, Paul encourages everyone on the vessel to eat so that they will have the strength to swim ashore. Paul reminds them that everyone on the boat will be saved and he gives thanks to God. Once the ship’s passengers and crew eat, the rest of the grain is thrown overboard to lighten the load.

As morning dawns, they cast off the anchors and set sail toward a beach within eyesight. Unfortunately, as they sail toward the beach, the ship strikes an unseen shoal and comes to rest. Everyone on board must evacuate because the waves are crashing against the stern of the ship and breaking it apart. The Roman soldiers plan to kill all the prisoners, lest they escape, but Julius, the centurion, stops them because he does not wish to see Paul die.

Those who can swim jump overboard and swim to shore. Those who cannot are instructed to use wooden planks from the ship as flotation. The plan works, and every single person on the ship makes it safely to shore. God’s promise that nobody on the ship would be harmed in the shipwreck has been fulfilled!

Commentary on Acts 17 (Paul in Athens)

After the Jerusalem Council in AD 49 (Acts 15), Paul sets off on his second major missionary journey. The map below plots his course. In this lesson, we are picking up the story at location 10 on the map. Location 10 is the famous city of Athens, and Paul’s time there is described in Acts 17:16-34.

Craig Keener, in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, writes,

Athens’ fame rested mainly on the glories of its past; even as a philosophical center, its primacy was challenged by other centers in the East like Alexandria and Tarsus. But Athens remained the symbol of the great philosophers in popular opinion, so much so that later rabbis liked to tell stories of earlier rabbis besting Athenian philosophers in debate.

When Paul arrives in Athens, he becomes greatly distressed at the incredible number of statues, idols, and altars dedicated to Greek gods. Clinton Arnold, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary) describes a subset of the gods worshiped in Athens:

Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, was probably the most popular with temples and edifices dedicated to her. Certainly every deity of the Greek pantheon was worshiped here. These included Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Aphrodite, Asclepius, Athena Nike, Athena Polias, Castor and Pollux, Demeter, Dionysus, the Erinyes, Eros, Ge, the Graces, Hades (Pluto), Hephaestus (Vulcan), Hekate, Heracles, Hermes, Hestia, Pan, Persephone, and Poseidon. A vast number of images of Hermes could be found all over the city and particularly in the agora. Numerous images of lesser deities and heroes are also found throughout the city.

Paul responds to the rampant idolatry by preaching the gospel first in the local Jewish synagogue. There, Paul encounters both religious Jews and devout Gentile God-fearers. Both groups would be biblically literate. Paul also preaches in the busy Athens marketplace (called the agora) to the biblically illiterate Gentiles of Athens.

While Paul is speaking in the agora, Epicurean and Stoic philosophers overhear and engage him in conversation. Evidently, they do not understand much of what Paul is saying because they insult him by calling him a “babbler.” They seem to think that he is talking about two new foreign gods: Jesus and Resurrection. The Greek word for resurrection is anastasis, and they misunderstood Paul to be talking about a goddess named Anastasis.

Epicureanism and Stoicism are two of the more popular philosophical schools of the first-century Roman world. The Stoics were more popular with the common people. John Polhill, in vol. 26, Acts, The New American Commentary, describes the beliefs of these two schools:

Epicureans were thoroughgoing materialists, believing that everything came from atoms or particles of matter. There was no life beyond this; all that was human returned to matter at death. Though the Epicureans did not deny the existence of gods, they saw them as totally indifferent to humanity. They did not believe in providence of any sort; and if one truly learned from the gods, that person would try to live the same sort of detached and tranquil life as they, as free from pain and passion and superstitious fears as they.

The Stoics had a more lively view of the gods than the Epicureans, believing very much in the divine providence. They were pantheists, believing that the ultimate divine principle was to be found in all of nature, including human beings. This spark of divinity, which they referred to as the logos, was the cohesive rational principle that bound the entire cosmic order together. Humans thus realized their fullest potential when they lived by reason. By reason, i.e., the divine principle within them which linked them with the gods and nature, they could discover ultimate truth for themselves. The Stoics generally had a rather high ethic and put great stock on self-sufficiency. Since they viewed all humans as bound together by common possession of the divine logos, they also had a strong sense of universal brotherhood.

Largely confused by what Paul is saying, the philosophers invite Paul to explain his beliefs to a council of wealthy, educated Athenians, known as the Areopagus. It is important to mention that there is also a hill in Athens named the Areopagus, but the council of that name did not always meet there. Paul may meet with them in a place called the Stoa Basilicos in the agora. The function of the council in the mid-first-century is unknown. Were they acting like a speech and debate club who were always curious to hear the latest news, or were they serving in some official capacity for the city? We don’t know.

In verses 22-31, Paul delivers a lengthy address to the assembled intellectuals of the Areopagus. These Greek philosophers are biblically illiterate, so Paul cannot possibly quote from the Hebrew Scriptures to make his case. He must use a different approach.

What Paul decides to do is find common ground with the Stoics and Epicureans, and build his case from that common ground. Paul first compliments the religiosity of the people of Athens by noting the numerous objects of worship scattered throughout the city. One altar stood out for Paul. The altar read, “To the unknown god.”

Why would the Athenians build an altar to an unknown god? Craig Keener reports, “During a plague long before Paul’s time, no altars had successfully propitiated the gods; Athens had finally offered sacrifices to an unknown god, immediately staying the plague. These altars were still standing, and Paul uses them as the basis for his speech.”

Assuming that the Athenians would want to know the identity of this unknown god which stayed the plague all those years ago, Paul introduces the Judeo-Christian God. This God is the creator of the world and everything in it. He is not confined to temples made by humans, meaning He transcends the physical world. Human beings cannot give this God anything, for He is completely self-sufficient and self-existent. This Creator-God gives to people their very lives. These concepts are at least somewhat familiar to the Greek intellectuals of the Areopagus. Thus, Paul has started on a common foundation that he can now build upon.

Paul next explains that all of mankind is descended from one man whom God created. He is, of course, talking about Adam, but he doesn’t mention his name here. From this one man, God determined the nations’ time periods and geographical boundaries. In other words, God has been completely sovereign over human history. What was God’s purpose in directing the timing and boundaries of the nations? To enable humanity to seek Him and find Him.

Theologian William Lane Craig believes that Acts 17:26-27 provides evidence for the idea that God has planned all human history to maximize the number of people that would come to know Him. On the Reasonable Faith website, in the article “Where was God?”, Craig writes:

I think that as Christians we want to say that God is providentially directing a world of free creatures in such a way as to maximize the number of persons to come to know him freely and to bring them into his Kingdom. And from the very creation of man, God was known by man at first. Adam and Eve and their children knew God. The Scripture says that God’s existence and nature is evident in the creation around us and that his moral law is written on our hearts. So from time immemorial people have known of the existence of God and of his moral demands on us. . . .

According to Paul [in Acts 17], the whole development of the human race is under the providence of God with a goal toward achieving the maximal knowledge of God. I think we see the marvelous plan of God unfolded in human history.

Paul then argues that God is not far from any person, and he quotes Greek poets (Epimenides and Aratus), with which the Areopagus would be familiar, to bolster his contention. The poet Aratus wrote that “we are all truly [Zeus’] offspring,” but Paul co-opts this quote to teach a lesson about the Judeo-Christian God. If we are the offspring of the Creator God, then we ought not to think that our Creator could be in the form of an idol made of gold, silver, or stone. Whoever created us must be greater than us, not lesser. The cause must be greater than the effect.

In verse 30-31, Paul reaches the climax of his speech. Up until now, God has overlooked the ignorance of mankind, the failure of men and women to find Him. This would hit the Athenians between the eyes because they considered themselves to be highly educated and knowledgeable, yet here was Paul telling them that they were ignorant of the true God.

God is now commanding everyone to repent of their ignorance. Why? Because God has appointed a day of judgment in the future for all humankind. God has appointed a man to do the judging on that day, and God confirmed this appointment by raising this man from the dead.

At this point in his speech, Paul seems to be interrupted by the reaction of the Areopagus. The mention of a bodily resurrection splits the crowd three ways. The first group mocks him. The second group asks to hear more from Paul. The third group eventually becomes believers, and two of these believers are named: Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris. Damaris would likely not have been part of the Areopagus, but she must have overheard Paul or she must have been associated with someone on the Areopagus.

Notice that Paul sticks to the fundamentals when he evangelizes the Athenian audience. Darrell Bock, in Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, summarizes Paul’s presentation about God:

He is creator, sustainer of life, and thus sovereign over the nations and the Father of us all. For all the disputation over creation and how it took place, the most fundamental truth is that God is the creator of life and we are God’s creatures, responsible to him. This means that God is, and has the right to be, our judge, something our world seeks to avoid acknowledging.

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.