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Commentary on Revelation 21-22 (New Heaven and New Earth)

After the Great White Throne Judgment of Revelation 20, John sees a new heaven and new earth which replace the old heaven and old earth. John sees the new city of Jerusalem descending from heaven, and he calls it a bride prepared for her husband.

A loud voice (not sure whose voice, but it is not God’s voice) announces the following: 1) God will live with humans in the New Jerusalem, 2) the people living with God will belong to Him, 3) God will ensure that there will be no more suffering among His people, and 4) God will make sure that there will be no more death among His people.

The idea of God dwelling with His people has a long history in the Bible. George Eldon Ladd, in A Commentary on the Revelation of John, beautifully explains:

In the Old Testament times, God’s dwelling place (skene) first was the tabernacle in the wilderness, and later the temple; and his presence was manifested by the shekinah glory. In the coming of Christ, God took up his dwelling temporarily among men (John 1:14 ‘The Word … dwelt among us.’ The same Greek root is used: eskenosen). During the church age, God indwells his church, which is his temple (Eph. 2:22); but this is a dwelling ‘in the Spirit,’ which can be apprehended only by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:17). In the consummation, all this is changed; faith will be changed to sight, and ‘they shall see his face’ (22:4).

This is a reality which we cannot visualize; but direct, unmarred fellowship between God and his people is the goal of all redemption. This is further expressed by the phrase ‘they shall be his people.’ This is an echo of the Old Testament idiom, ‘I shall be their God and they shall be my people,’ which expresses the oft-repeated aim of the divine self-revelation and of all of God’s dealings with his people. All the promises of God’s covenant with men, made first through Abraham, renewed through Moses, and embodied in Christ, are at last brought to full realization.

In verses 5-8, God the Father speaks. He assures John that He is making all of reality new. The entire creation, including human beings, is re-created. John can know that these events will occur because the One speaking is the omniscient, omnipotent ruler of the universe.

God will give to all those who seek to be with Him what they desire. Those who conquer will become fully adopted children of God. To conquer is to remain faithful to Jesus (God) throughout one’s life, regardless of the suffering a person might be forced to endure. Those who are “cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars” will spend eternity in the lake of fire.

Grant Osborne, in Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, comments about verse 8:

The list of sins in this verse is a typical ‘vice code’ (see Reid, DLNT 1190–94) of the type developed by the Stoics and Cynics and found often within Hellenistic Judaism (Philo, Sacr. 15–33; Wis. 14:22–27; 4 Macc. 1:2–4, 22–28; Sib. Or. 2.254–82) and used frequently in the NT (Rom. 1:29–31; Eph. 4:25–32; 5:3–5; Col. 3:5–8; 1 Tim. 1:9–10; James 3:14–16; 1 Pet. 2:1; 4:3, 15). Revelation has three such lists (9:21; 21:8; 22:15), the longest of which is here.

The list here is not, however, a general enumeration of sins but instead a specific list that draws together the sins of the book. Its purpose is to sum up the depravity of the unbelievers, and each term reflects sins mentioned elsewhere in the book [of Revelation].

However, the coward merits additional explanation. Osborne writes:

While the rest of the list describes the unchurched and wicked who were the enemies of Christianity, this first term probably describes those in the church who fail to persevere but give in to the pressures of the world. . . . The reader is being asked to make a choice whether to ‘overcome’ the pressure of the world and refuse to succumb to it or to be a ‘coward’ and surrender to sin. Those who do so will join the unbelieving world in eternal damnation.

In verse 9, the same angel who showed John the destruction of the evil city of Babylon will now show John the holy city of New Jerusalem. Babylon is portrayed as a harlot, but Jerusalem is the Bride of the Lamb (Jesus). The next seventeen verses describe the glory of the New Jerusalem.

The first thing John sees is that the city is descending from heaven down to the earth. Heaven and earth are now joined together. Second, the city radiates God’s glory, which John compares to a brilliant jasper (likely a diamond in this case). Third, a high wall surrounds the city on four sides. On each wall are three gates (total of twelve), and twelve angels occupy the twelve gates. The gates have the names of the twelve tribes of Israel written on them. The wall of the city also has twelve foundations, and the names of the twelve apostles of Jesus are on the foundations. Mark Wilson, in Hebrews to Revelation: Volume Four (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), notes that the number twelve is “used repeatedly in chapter 21 to speak of gates (vv. 12, 21), angels and tribes (v. 12), foundations and apostles (v. 14), and pearls (v. 21). Twelve signifies completion and perfection and is the product of the sacred numbers three and four.”

What is the meaning of the walls, gates, angels, foundations, and names written on them? Grant Osborne writes, “The wall is emphasized in 21:18, where we read it is made of jasper, meaning its purpose is not defense but rather radiating the glory of God. It is a ‘great high wall’ because of the size of the city but especially due to the greatness of the glory of God (in keeping with 21:11, ‘It held the glory of God’”).”

Regarding the twelve gates and twelve tribes, Osborne comments:

The idea of twelve gates, three on each side, is taken from Ezek. 48:30–35, where the new temple also has twelve, with three on each side. A major difference is that each gate in Ezekiel is named after a tribe, while here it says simply that ‘the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel were written on the gates.’ The meaning in Ezekiel is that each tribe has a gate that opens to its own tribal territory. Here the thrust is quite different. These gates provide access to all ‘humankind,’ namely, the ‘people’ (21:3) who have ‘overcome’ the world (21:7a) and so ‘inherited’ the city of God (21:7b). The fact of twelve gates means that access is plentiful, and the names of the twelve tribes written on the gates builds on the symbol of the 144,000 in 7:1–8, meaning that the people of God provide access to the ‘people’ of the world so that they might repent and thus gain entrance to the city of God.

The angels could be watchmen standing guard over each gate (see Isaiah 62:6) or they could be linked to the angels of the seven churches and represent God’s new relationship with His people.

The twelve foundations with names of the apostles, according to George Eldon Ladd, are

an obvious allusion to the theology of the church, which is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20). By this symbolism of the twelve gates bearing the names of the twelve tribes of Israel, and the twelve foundations bearing the names of the twelve apostles, John indicates that the city encompasses both dispensations, and that both the Israel of the Old Testament and of the church of the New Testament have their place in God’s final establishment.

In verses 15-17, the angel then measures the dimensions of the city. The city is constructed as a cube with each dimension being 12,000 stadia (about 1500 miles), a truly enormous volume. The walls are 144 cubits (216 feet) thick. Osborne notes that the “cube shape matches the shape of the Holy of Holies (20 cubits each direction, 1 Kings 6:20; 2 Chron. 3:8–9). Since the Holy of Holies was the place where the Shekinah resided, this is especially appropriate for the celestial city.”

Are we to understand the New Jerusalem to be literally these dimensions? Doubtful. Osborne explains,

As the 1,600 stadia of 14:20 was the length of Palestine, the 12,000 stadia here was the length of the Roman Empire (from Joppa [in Spain] to the Euphrates). The number is obviously symbolic (like the 12,000 of 7:4–8). It signifies not only perfection but a city large enough to hold all the saints down through the ages, the saints from ‘every tribe, language, people, and nation’ (5:9; 7:9; cf. 21:24, 26).

To emphasize the glory of the city, John writes that the walls are made of jasper (a precious stone), and the city is made of a clear gold (see Isaiah 54:11-12). No such gold is known, so John must be attempting to describe a precious metal that is beyond human experience. Osborne adds, “The splendor of earthly gold is inadequate; it must be transparent so God’s glory can shine through it.”

The foundation of the city contains twelve different precious jewels. The stones listed are like the twelve stones found in the breastplate of the high priest in Exodus 28 and 39. Mark Wilson writes, “The stones represent a city not only of majestic beauty and glory, but also one of great value to be desired by its future residents.”

The twelve gates are made of single pearls and the main street of the city is made of clear gold. Grant Osborne writes, “In short, Revelation builds on a lengthy tradition in depicting the majesty of the celestial city yet transforms these images into a description of the glory the saints will receive on the basis of the presence of God and their priestly status in the eternal city.”

Verse 22 records the fact that there is no temple in the New Jerusalem, because God the Father and Jesus are the temple. The glorious light that shines forth from God and His Son means that there is no need for the sun or moon in the sky. Ladd explains:

In reflecting upon the glories of the new Jerusalem, John was overwhelmed by the vision of the presence of God and recalled the prophecy of Isaiah, ‘The sun shall be no more your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give light to you by night, but the Lord shall be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory’ (Isa. 60:19). It is doubtful that John intended to give astronomical information about the new world; his purpose is to affirm the unsurpassed splendor which radiates from the presence of God and the Lamb.

Unlike typical cities, the gates of New Jerusalem will never close. All the kings of the earth will be welcome to the city to honor God. But, John reminds us, only those whose names are written in the book of life will enter the city. Evil will never stain the New Heaven and New Earth.

Why does John describe the New Heaven and New Earth as a giant city instead of something more rural? Craig Keener, in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, writes:

Some Jewish pictures of the end emphasized a return to Israel’s pastoral/agricultural beginnings, without ruling out urban existence (Sibylline Oracles 3:744–51), but the New Testament and most contemporary Jewish literature are more urban than most Old Testament depictions of the end (Amos 9:13–15). The symbolic imagery for paradise was adapted to speak most relevantly to the cultures addressed.

In chapter 22, verses 1-5, we see that the New Jerusalem is also the restored Garden of Eden. There is a river of life that flows directly from the throne of God the Father and the Lamb (note it’s a single throne that they share). George Elton Ladd comments:

This is a symbolic way of describing the reign of eternal life in the age to come. The symbolism of a river of life is a common one in biblical thought. The Psalmist wrote of a ‘river whose streams make glad the city of God’ (46:4). Jesus spoke of the living water (John 4:10, 14) which he offered men. Ezekiel’s vision of the new Jerusalem pictured a river of water flowing from under the temple (which was not located in Jerusalem itself), which brought healing and life to the waters of the Dead Sea (Ezek. 47:1–12). Zechariah had a vision of the Kingdom of God in which rivers of water flowed from Jerusalem both eastward and westward (Zech. 14:8). The presence of the river of life in the new Jerusalem is a picturesque way of saying that death with all its baleful accompaniments has been abolished and life reigns supreme.

Beside the river is the tree of life which yields fruit year-round. Ladd writes:

The description of the tree of life follows very closely the language of Ezek. 47:12 . . . The tree is pictured as bearing a different kind of fruit each month. This obviously has no parallel in the human experience of this age. The meaning is that the tree will not pass through the ordinary cycles of budding, blossoming, fruit-setting, and harvest, giving a crop once or twice a year, but will be loaded with fruit every month of the year. This expresses the absolute triumph of life over death.

The curse from Genesis 3:14 is reversed because sin is no more. All of God’s servants will worship Him in the restored Eden, and they will worship Him face-to-face. Ladd reminds us:

This is the hope and the goal of individual salvation throughout the Scriptures: the beatific vision of God. Throughout all redemptive history, God’s presence was mediated to men in different ways. In the Old Testament it was mediated through the prophetic word, theophanies, dreams, angels and the cult. To come face to face with the living God meant death (Exod. 33:20). Jesus in his incarnation brought the presence of God to men in his own person (Matt. 1:23); to see and to know Christ was to see and know the Father (John 14:7, 9; 17:3). This vision of God was still a mediated vision, realized only in faith. In the age to come, faith will give way to sight (Ps. 17:15; Matt. 5:8; 1 John 3:2).

The servants of God will reign with Him forever and ever. Grant Osborne writes:

In [Revelation] 2:26–27 the overcomers are promised the same ‘authority over the nations’ that Christ received from the Father; and in 20:4 and 3:21 Christ promised that they ‘will sit with me on my throne.’ Those promises were partially realized in 20:4 when the victorious saints ‘reigned with Christ a thousand years.’ But here that millennial reign is transformed into an eternal reign. This also fulfills Dan. 7:18 (‘The saints of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever’) and 27 (‘Then the sovereignty, power, and greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven will be handed over to the saints, the people of the Most High’). In Luke 22:30 (par. Matt. 19:28), Jesus promised the disciples that they would ‘sit on twelve thrones, judging the tribes of Israel,’ and in 1 Cor. 6:2 Paul said, ‘Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?’ (cf. 2 Tim. 2:12, ‘If we endure, we will also reign with him’). This sums up a major biblical theme on the future reign of the saints. Of course, this cannot be meant literally, for every saint will rule a kingdom that only the saints inhabit (there is no hint in Scripture that we will reign over the celestial beings; rather, we are their ‘fellow servants,’ 19:10; 22:9). Thus, it probably means we will participate in the rule of Christ over the eternal kingdom and perhaps ‘exercise sovereignty over the new creation in a way similar to how Adam was to rule “over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28)’ (Beale 1999: 1116).

Commentary on Revelation 20 (The Millennium)

Now that the beast and the false prophet have been defeated, John sees another vision which starts in chapter 20. John sees an angel bind up Satan with chains and seal him in a pit. For one thousand years (the Millennium), Satan will not be able to deceive humankind any longer. Ominously, though, Satan will be released at the end of the Millennium one last time. Bible scholars differ over whether the one thousand years should be taken literally, but it seems clear that regardless of the actual length of time, the one thousand years describes a fixed amount of time determined by God.

John then describes an earthly kingdom which will be ruled by Christ and his saints. In particular, those saints who were martyred by the beast because of their allegiance to Christ will reign with him during the Millennium. How will Christ’s deceased saints rule with him? They are resurrected! God will give all believers throughout human history resurrected bodies to live, rule, and serve as priests with Christ in the Millennium. Those who are resurrected will never die again; they will live forever with Christ.

Grant Osborne, in Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, notes that verses 4-6 in chapter 20 emphasize the vindication of the saints:

“The second part (20:4–6) stresses another major theme of the book, the vindication of the saints. In Matt. 19:28 Jesus promised the disciples they would sit on ‘twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes.’ In 1 Cor. 6:2 Paul says the saints ‘will judge the world.’ Then in Rev. 2:26 the saints will have ‘authority over the nations,’ and in 3:21 they ‘will sit with [Christ] on his throne.’ This prepares for 6:9–11, where the martyred saints are promised that at the proper time they would be vindicated. That vindication took place in stages, from the storm theophany of 6:12–17 to the outpouring of wrath in 8:3–5 to the destruction of Babylon the Great in chapters 17–19. But it is finalized in 20:4–6, where the saints sit on thrones and judge the nations for the thousand-year period.

Also populating the earth during the Millennium are those who were aligned with the beast before his demise and their descendants. They will live in their natural bodies under the rule of Christ and his resurrected saints during the Millennium. Remember that only the Antichrist’s armies were killed in the battle of Armageddon.

After the Millennium ends, Satan will be released from prison one last time, and he will deceive the people of the earth (not the resurrected saints). A leader called Gog, from a land called Magog, will gather a massive army and march on the city of Jerusalem, the city where Jesus lives and rules. Before they can enter the city, God rains down fire on them, and they are all killed. God then throws Satan into the lake of fire with the beast and false prophet where they “will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”

George Eldon Ladd, in A Commentary on the Revelation of John, notes the parallels between Ezekiel 36-39 and argues that Revelation 20 is the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy.

Gog and Magog are biblical names for the nations who are rebellious against God and hostile to his people. In Ezek. 38:1, Gog is the prince of the land of Magog and comes from the north in the latter days to do battle with God’s people. In Revelation, both words represent the hostile nations.

While the New Testament has little to say about a temporal messianic kingdom, Ezekiel’s prophecy has the same basic structure as Rev. 20. Chapters 36–37 picture the salvation of Israel, restored to their land and blessed with the messianic salvation (see 36:24–29). The goal of the prophetic expectation, ‘you shall be my people, and I will be your God’ (Ezek. 36:28) is now realized. David, God’s servant, will rule over his people, and God will dwell in their midst (37:25, 28). However, the blessing of the messianic kingdom is not the end. The kingdom is disturbed by an eschatological war led by Gog from Magog (chapters 38–39); and only after the divine victory do we have a picture of the eternal new order, which in Ezekiel is described in terms of a rebuilt temple in the new Jerusalem (chapters 40–48). This structure of a temporal messianic kingdom followed by the eternal kingdom in the new age is the same as that in Revelation.

Why will there be a temporal, earthly kingdom under Christ’s rule? Why allow Satan to deceive the world again? Ladd answers:

In the present instance, even after Christ himself has reigned over men during the millennium, when the deceiver is set free from his prison, he finds the hearts of men still responsive to his seductions. This makes it plain that the ultimate root of sin is not poverty or inadequate social conditions or an unfortunate environment; it is the rebelliousness of the human heart. The millennium and the subsequent rebellion of men will prove that men cannot blame their sinfulness on their environment or unfortunate circumstances; in the final judgment, the decrees of God will be shown to be just and righteous.

Osborne adds:

For a thousand years, those among the nations who worshiped the beast will be under Jesus’ sovereign control and ruled by the saints. They will not experience Satan or be deceived in any way by him. All they will experience is the benign rule of Jesus himself. Yet after fourteen lifetimes of enforced good (according to the text, i.e., the story form), as soon as Satan is released, they allow themselves to be ‘deceived’ all over again and follow him. The purpose is to prove the power of total depravity and demonstrate once and for all the necessity of eternal punishment. The millennium is the judicial evidence that will convict the earth-dwellers and prove that their eternal sin demands eternal punishment. In other words, 20:3c and 20:7–10 are the divine ‘must’ of a just God.

John has told us the fate of the beast, the false prophet, and Satan himself. But what will happen to the people who, throughout human history, rejected God while they were alive, but are now deceased?

John’s vision moves to a great white throne upon which God sits (compare the following verses to Daniel 7: 9, 10, 22). The entire physical universe ceases to exist. All the unrighteous dead are resurrected and join the already resurrected believers. Both the saints and the wicked stand before God where He reviews the books which contain their deeds.

John then mentions another book, the book of life. This book lists all the saved people of God. The only way for a person to be saved is through the blood of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. Every person whose name is not found in the book of life is sent to the lake of fire. Death itself is also thrown into the lake of fire, meaning that no saved person will ever die again.

Mark Wilson, in Hebrews to Revelation: Volume Four (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), connects these verses to the book of Daniel:

Daniel prophesied that ‘everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered’ (Dan. 12:1). The deliverance promised to the righteous dead is everlasting life (12:2). The victors in Sardis are promised that their names would not be erased from the book of life (Rev. 3:5). The primary act disqualifying the earth dwellers from inclusion in the book of life is worshiping the beast rather than the Lamb (cf. 13:8; 17:8). The consequence of omission from the book of life is being thrown into the lake of fire. An angel has earlier warned those who worship the beast that eternal torment with burning sulfur would be their fate (14:10–11). That moment has finally arrived. . . .

The dead, who are excluded from the first resurrection, are the multitudes spoken of by Daniel who will awaken to shame and eternal contempt (Dan. 12:2). Upon hearing the voice of the Son of Man, those practicing evil will come out of their graves to be condemned to the resurrection of judgment (John 5:28–29). The second death is the punishment Jesus warned about: ‘Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell’ (Matt. 10:28). Death and Hades are the last to be thrown into the lake of fire. He who holds the keys of death and Hades has finally turned the lock (cf. Rev. 1:18). This picture accords with Paul’s statement, ‘The last enemy to be destroyed is death’ (1 Cor. 15:26).

Commentary on Revelation 19 (Battle of Armageddon)

The preceding chapters of Revelation describe the great suffering that the children of God would suffer due to the evil actions of Satan, the antichrist (the beast), and the false prophet. The beast represents anti-Christian political power, and the false prophet represents anti-Christian religion. Some writers have referred to these three as the false trinity.

The Old Testament writers promised that God would defeat evil in a final battle (see Isa. 13:4; 31:4; Ezek. 38–39; Joel 3; Zech. 14:3). The New Testament writers understood Jesus Christ to be the one appointed by God to subjugate evil (see Matt. 13:41–42; 25:41; Rom. 2:5; 2 Thess. 1:7; 2:8). When Jesus returns to the earth at his Second Coming, his first act will be to conquer those who oppose God and His people. These events are described in Revelation 19, starting in verse 11.

In verses 11-13, John sees heaven open up and a rider on a white horse coming forth. It is clear from John’s description that the rider is none other than Jesus Christ! His mission is to judge and make war against the enemies of God. George Eldon Ladd, in A Commentary on the Revelation of John, explains the OT background of John’s description of Jesus:

The most vivid prophetic picture is that of an unnamed conqueror who strides forth in crimsoned garments for vindication, who had trodden the wine press of God’s wrath and stained his garments with his enemies’ blood, who trod the hostile peoples in his wrath and established the day of vengeance (Isa. 63:1–6). John sees Christ coming as a conquering warrior in bloodstained garments, destroying all hostile and opposing powers with his mighty sword.

The armies of heaven, dressed in white robes and also riding white horses, follow Jesus (white is the symbol of victory). This army is most likely a combination of angels and deceased believers. Since their robes are not stained with blood, the implication is that they will only watch the battle and not participate.

John sees a sword coming from Jesus’ mouth, symbolizing his judgment and execution of justice. Ladd explains the sword imagery:

The only weapon involved in the warfare is the word of Christ. This language looks back to Isa. 11:4: ‘And he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.’ Here is a symbolic representation of victory by the power of a word which is impossible to be literally envisaged. The idea goes back to creation. God created the worlds by his word. He spoke and it was done. This creation was mediated through the living word, Christ (John 1:3; Heb. 1:2). The judgment on the old order will also be mediated through the word of Christ. Just how John visualized this victory is impossible to say. It is, however, certain that he expected actual objective events to occur which would transform the structure of human society, purging out the evil.

Jesus will make the wrath of God known to the persecutors of His children. Even though the beast (antichrist) has set himself up as a world leader and has convinced other political leaders to follow him, the reader understands that there is only one real power in the universe, Jesus Christ, who is King of kings and Lord of lords. Upon Jesus’ return, the whole world will finally understand who is in charge.

Earlier in chapter 19, John wrote about the marriage supper of the Lamb, where the redeemed in Christ will celebrate their victory in Jesus, the Lamb of God. Verses 17-21 describe a second supper, but in this supper, those arrayed against God will be the meal, and the birds of the air will be the ones eating the meal. This image, though grotesque, is a metaphor for God’s total victory over evil, and it is firmly rooted in the OT. Grant Osborne, in Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, provides background:

There will be two great messianic banquets at the eschaton: the feast with the Lamb for the saints and the feast on the sinners for the carrion birds. The saints will partake of the great banquet, and the sinners will be the great banquet! This image is drawn from Ezek. 39:17–20, where the judgment against Gog is punctuated by an invitation to the birds and wild animals to ‘come together’ for ‘the great sacrifice on the mountains of Israel,’ where they will ‘eat the flesh of mighty men and drink the blood of the princes of the earth.’ The difference is that in Ezekiel the call to the scavengers comes after the defeat and burial of Gog, while here it comes before those events. This gives the scene great rhetorical power.

John sees the armies of the beast and his allies ready to battle the rider on the white horse. These verses are a continuation of the narrative from Revelation 16:13-16, where the false trinity prepares for the battle of Armageddon.

Then I saw three impure spirits that looked like frogs; they came out of the mouth of the dragon, out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet. They are demonic spirits that perform signs, and they go out to the kings of the whole world, to gather them for the battle on the great day of God Almighty. ‘Look, I come like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and remains clothed, so as not to go naked and be shamefully exposed.’ Then they gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.

John’s vision, however, only records the aftermath and not the battle itself. First, the beast and his false prophet are captured and thrown into the lake of fire where they suffer eternally. Second, the kings and armies aligned with the beast are all killed by the sword from Jesus’ mouth. Just like that, the battle is over. Osborne traces the possible source of the phrase “lake of fire,” which only occurs here in the NT:

Bertrand (1999) says the origin of the ‘lake of fire’ comes from a combination of two images, with the ‘fire’ stemming from traditions regarding the destruction of Sodom by fire and sulfur (Gen. 19:24 = Luke 17:29–30; 1 Enoch 21.7–10; 67.4–13; 90.25) and the ‘lake’ stemming from Hellenistic mythical portrayals of hell. The basic connection with ‘Gehenna,’ of course, is certain. ‘Sheol’ (OT) or ‘Hades’ (NT) refers to the grave, while ‘Gehenna’ refers to eternal fiery punishment. The name Gehenna derived originally from the Valley of Hinnom on the south slope of Jerusalem, which became notorious during the evil reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh, when their own children were burned as sacrifices to the god Molech (2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6). It was condemned and became a symbol for future punishment (Isa. 66:24; Jer. 7:30–33). Thus, ‘Gehenna’ symbolized the place of final punishment, located in the depths of the earth (Sib. Or. 4.184–86) and associated with eternal torment (Sib. Or. 2.292–310). In Jesus’ day it was the city dump, and the fires never went out due to the burning garbage. In Jesus’ teaching, Gehenna was also the symbol for eternal fiery punishment (Mark 9:43, 45, 47 par.; Matt. 10:28 par.; 18:9; 23:15; cf. 25:46). Thus, the idea of final fiery punishment has a rich history behind it (see Lunde, DJG 310–11).

Many people have pointed out that God’s destruction of the armies of mankind arrayed against Him seem inconsistent with His compassion. Osborne deals with this accusation:

How can a compassionate God do such a thing? Yet such a question forgets that Yahweh is at one and the same time a God of love and a holy God of justice. To ask the question is to ignore the devastating consequences of sin. We must remember the number of times in the book God has offered them forgiveness if they were to repent, yet they again and again refused God’s offer (9:20–21; 14:6–7; 16:8, 10–11) and preferred to worship the very demons who hated them (9:1–21). They preferred the delusion to the truth. It is a holy God who must eradicate sin in order to inaugurate the perfect reality for which he had created humankind in the first place.

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.