Category Archives: Sunday School

Commentary on Acts 9 (Conversion of Saul/Paul)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commentary on Acts 8 (Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commentary on Acts 6-7 (Stephen Martyred)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bock summarizes the story of Stephen’s death:

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

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

Commentary on Acts 4-5 (Ananias and Sapphira)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commentary on Acts 2 (Peter’s First Sermon)

As the crowd of Jews listens to the disciples of Jesus praise God in a dozen different languages, some of the crowd accuse the disciples of being drunk. Peter then stands up, with the eleven, and begins to explain to the crowd what exactly is happening.

Peter calls out to the crowd to listen carefully to what he is about to say. As it is only 9 am, the accusation of drunkenness is nonsensical. Instead, what the crowd is witnessing was predicted long ago by the prophet Joel. Peter then quotes Joel 2:28-32, where God promises that He will pour out His spirit on all of Israel – men, women, sons, daughters, and even slaves. The reason that the disciples of Jesus are miraculously able to speak in foreign languages, proclaiming the glory of God to the assembled crowds in Jerusalem, is because God has poured out the Holy Spirit on them.

Joel’s prophecy indicated that the pouring out of the Spirit would occur before God would bring judgment on the world for her sins. That judgment day is known as the “day of the Lord.” Those who are proclaimed not guilty before God on judgment day would then populate the ensuing messianic kingdom.

Peter is telling the crowd that the pouring out of the Holy Spirit has initiated the “last days.” The clock has started ticking on the “last days.” At the end of the last days, God will come in judgment, and then the messianic kingdom will begin. Joel 2:30-31 (cited in Acts 2:19-20) refers to the future cosmic signs that will manifestly herald the day of the Lord. Pay close attention to Acts 2:21 where Peter, quoting Joel, reminds the crowd that only those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved from God’s judgment and enter the messianic kingdom. More on this later.

Now that Peter has explained that the Holy Spirit has been poured out on Jesus’ disciples, Peter quickly moves to the person of Jesus. First, Peter reminds the crowd that they all witnessed for themselves the public miracles that Jesus performed. These miracles were the evidence that Jesus was commissioned by God.

Jesus was killed by the Jewish leadership, Pilate, and indirectly Herod. The Jews in Jerusalem who shouted for him to be crucified by Pilate were also culpable. It is likely that many of those Jews were standing in the crowd listening to Peter. Jesus’ death was not a surprise to God, but was part of God’s plan all along. What was also part of God’s plan was to raise Jesus from the dead, and that is exactly what He did.

Peter then quotes Psalm 16:8-11, where David is speaking of a person who would not be abandoned to Hades (death) and whose body would not see corruption. It was commonly thought in first century Palestine that David was talking about himself in Psalm 16, but Peter offers a corrective.

Peter argues that David did not escape Hades because his body is still in the tomb where he was buried one thousand years prior. David’s tomb was located in Jerusalem and was well-known by all who lived there. So, Psalm 16 could not be talking about David. Instead, David, when he was prophetically writing Psalm 16, was writing about his descendant, the Messiah, who was promised to David in 2 Samuel 7.

So who did escape Hades? Whose body did not see corruption? Jesus of Nazareth. The disciples of Jesus, Peter argues, were eyewitnesses of his bodily resurrection, so Jesus must be the Messiah whom David wrote about in Psalm 16.

This same Jesus, whom Peter has shown is the promised Messiah, is also Lord. Peter tells the crowd that Jesus ascended into heaven and was exalted to a unique position of power at the right hand of God the Father. Jesus then sent the Holy Spirit, as promised by the Father, to his followers on that very day.

Peter notes that David never ascended to heaven, but instead wrote about someone who would be given all authority by God the Father in Psalm 110:1: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” The Lord to whom David refers in this Psalm is none other than Jesus of Nazareth. Not only is Jesus Messiah, but Jesus is also Lord.

Psalm 110:1 is the most cited Old Testament verse by New Testament writers. John Polhill, in Acts, vol. 26, The New American Commentary , explains that

Psalm 110:1 was a favorite text for the early church. According to Mark 12:35–37, it was first used of the Messiah by Jesus himself to attack the usual political understanding of a Davidic Messiah. It reappears throughout the New Testament, in 1 Cor 15:25; Heb 1:13; 10:13 and with strong allusions in Rom 8:34; Eph 1:20, 22; Col 3:1; Heb 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pet 3:22. Originally it may have been an enthronement psalm acknowledging the earthly king as God’s representative. For the early Christians it became the basis for the affirmation that Jesus has been exalted to God’s right hand. For Peter it served as a natural transition from the confession of Jesus as Messiah, the dominant concept to this point, to the ultimate confession that Jesus is Lord.

The climax of Peter’s sermon is verse 36: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Clinton Arnold writes, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary) : “As Messiah, he is the fulfillment of Israel’s expectations for a descendant of David to come and sit on the throne. As Lord, Jesus is at the right hand of God and is the sovereign.”

Remember that Peter cited Joel, who said that those who call on the name of the Lord would be saved from God’s judgment. All Jews had understood the Lord to be God the Father. Peter has now argued that the Lord, the name to be called upon, is instead Jesus. Jesus has the same authority as God the Father!

Thousands of people in the crowd are shocked into the reality of their guilt before God. They have been a party to the murder of the Lord and Messiah, the one who was sent by God Himself, the One who is God. The crowd asks Peter and apostles what they are to do?

Peter responds with a four-part answer that would be become the basis for all conversions to Christianity: 1) repentance, 2) baptism in the name of Jesus Christ, 3) forgiveness of sins, and 4) receipt of the Spirit. John Polhill warns, however, that we are not to read this four-part answer as a mechanistic pattern:

These four generally form a single complex throughout Luke-Acts. They are the normative ingredients of conversion. There is no set, mechanistic pattern by which the various components come into play, particularly baptism and the receipt of the Spirit. The connection of the Spirit with baptism is depicted in various sequences through Acts. Here the Spirit seems to be promised immediately following or as a concomitant of baptism, whereas in 10:44–48 the coming of the Spirit seems to have preceded water baptism. The Ethiopian eunuch was baptized, but receipt of the Spirit was not mentioned (8:38), though his resulting joy was a gift of the Spirit. Baptism and the gift of the Spirit are separated by some interval of time for the Samaritans (8:12, 17). The disciples of John at Ephesus were rebaptized and immediately received the Spirit (19:5–6). The Spirit cannot be tied down to a set pattern. Clearly, however, both baptism and receipt of the Spirit are normative to the experience of becoming a Christian believer.

Repentance is the critical first step to conversion, for without repentance a person is not saved. Clinton Arnold explains what repentance is:

Repentance (metanoia) involves primarily a radical change in a person’s central affections, convictions, and life direction. It signifies a recognition that one’s life has been oriented around self and sinful pursuits and an embracing of God’s will and priorities. The call to repent is a continuation of Jesus’ own ministry introduced by John the Baptist with his call to repentance (Luke 3:3) and repeatedly urged by Jesus himself in his earthly ministry (Luke 13:3, 5; 24:47).

Peter also adds that this four-fold pattern applies to future generations and to anyone whom God calls from that day forward. As the church spread in the early years, this would even come to include Gentiles. This conversion process was to become universal across time and place.

Luke records that Peter’s sermon included many more words of exhortation, but Luke’s purpose – capturing the highlights of the address – has been accomplished. Peter’s first sermon attracts three thousand souls to Jesus. When Jesus told the disciples they would do greater works than him, this is exactly the kind of thing to which he was referring!

Darrell Bock, in , summarizes the importance of Peter’s Pentecost sermon:

The speech thus shows how God’s activity through Jesus stands at the core of the Christian message. Jesus’s resurrection means far more than merely that there is life after death. It is a vindication of Jesus’s life and mission, a demonstration that Jesus lives and still rules, and a reflection that Jesus is a unique person, sharing the precious presence and glory of God in a unique way. Christ’s death led to Christ’s victory and rule (Fernando 1998: 108–9). The reality of the resurrection transformed the apostles from those who were timid to those who were bold to share Jesus with others. Peter also makes clear that the sin of rejecting God’s unique messenger stands at the base of why Jesus had to die and that forgiveness and the Spirit are what the gospel offers, as the next unit will show. The Spirit’s central place in the promise of God also is highlighted here. The Spirit is the evidence that Jesus is raised and reigns with God. The believer’s changed life is a testimony to Jesus’s current activity in the world and enables the mission. So God works through the Son and gives the Spirit. Undergirding the salvation message is the united work of Father, Son, and Spirit.

Commentary on Acts 1-2 (Jesus’ Ascension and Pentecost)

In verses 1-11 of Acts 1, Luke reviews where he left off in his Gospel. Luke reminds Theophilus, his likely Roman sponsor (or patron), that Jesus appeared to the disciples, after his resurrection, for a period of forty days. During these forty days, the disciples saw proof (physical evidence) that Jesus indeed rose bodily from the dead. Jesus also continued to speak to them about the kingdom of God, which was the focus of his three-year public ministry.

Near the end of the forty-day period, Jesus commands the disciples to stay put in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit is given to them, as the Father had promised. John the Baptist had baptized with water, but they would soon be baptized by the Spirit of God.

The disciples, upon hearing of the imminent gift of the Holy Spirit, assume that the messianic kingdom will be inaugurated shortly thereafter. They ask Jesus when this will occur. Craig Keener, in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament , writes, “This question was the most natural one for the disciples to ask Jesus. He had been talking about the kingdom (1:3), and the references to the outpouring of the Spirit in the Old Testament were all in the context of Israel’s restoration (Is 32:15; 44:3; Ezek 36:25–28; 37:14; 39:29; Joel 2:28–3:1).”

Jesus tells them that only God the Father knows when the messianic kingdom will begin, and that they are not to focus on the date. Instead, they are to use the power of the Holy Spirit to be “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

The disciples are to take the message of Jesus first to the people of Jerusalem, and then the surrounding lands of Judea and Samaria, and then ultimately to Rome and the rest of the world. The Book of Acts, itself, will begin in Jerusalem (chapters 1-7), and then move to Judea and Samaria (chapters 8-11), and then move through Asia Minor, Greece, and ultimately to Rome (chapters 12-28).

Luke likely has in mind Isaiah 49:6. Speaking of the future Suffering Servant (the Messiah), God says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Even though Acts ends in Rome, it seems clear from Old Testament prophecies that God’s goal is the evangelization of all nations and all ethnicities. Darrell Bock, in Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament , writes that

this commission describes the church’s key assignment of what to do until the Lord returns. The priority for the church until Jesus returns, a mission of which the community must never lose sight, is to witness to Jesus to the end of the earth. The church exists, in major part, to extend the apostolic witness to Jesus everywhere. In fact, the church does not have a mission; it is to be missional and is a mission.

To what exactly are the disciples of Jesus supposed to witness? John Polhill, in vol. 26, Acts, The New American Commentary , explains, “In Acts the apostles’ main role is depicted as witnessing to the earthly ministry of Jesus, above all to his resurrection (cf. 1:22; 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39, 41). As eyewitnesses only they were in the position to be guarantors of the resurrection.” The resurrection, therefore, is a fundamental component of the church’s witness to the world.

While standing on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem to the west, a bright cloud then surrounds Jesus and carries him up into the sky. Jesus ascends back to his Father in heaven and his earthly ministry officially comes to an end. While the disciples are still looking into the sky, two angels appear and inform them that Jesus will one day return to earth to the very same place, on the Mount of Olives, carried by clouds.

John Polhill recalls how the ascension reflects earlier biblical events:

The ascension narrative evokes rich biblical reminiscences—the translations of Enoch and Elijah, the cloud that enveloped Mt. Sinai. Indeed, clouds are often associated with theophanies. One particularly thinks of the transfiguration narrative of Luke 9:28–36. The picture in Acts 1:9 is that of a cloud enveloping Jesus as he disappeared from sight, just as in Luke 9:34–36 the appearance of the cloud led to the disappearance of Moses and Elijah. The vivid pictorial depiction of Jesus’ ascension into heaven serves to give tangible form to the apostles’ testimony to the exaltation of Christ. Indeed, Luke stressed this by referring to their seeing and looking intently no fewer than five times in vv. 9–11, and he returned to the importance of their eyewitness in v. 22.

Stanley Toussaint, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary , remarks that

the Ascension meant that the continuing work of Christ on earth was now placed in the hands of His disciples (Acts 1:1–2, 8). It was imperative that the Ascension occur so that the promised Comforter could come (cf. John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7; Acts 2:33–36). The Holy Spirit would empower the disciples as they ministered the gospel and waited for the kingdom.

In the remainder of chapter one, the disciples remain in Jerusalem, praying and waiting for the appearance of the Holy Spirit. During this time, they pick a disciple named Matthias to replace the traitor Judas Iscariot.

As chapter two begins, the disciples are in a house together on the day of Pentecost. According to Clinton Arnold, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary) ,

The term ‘Pentecost’ is a transliteration of the Greek word pentēkostē, which means ‘fiftieth.’ It referred to the fiftieth day after the Passover festival when the Jews celebrated the Feast of Weeks—the annual harvest festival (see Lev. 23:15-21 and Deut. 16:9-12). This was the second of three festivals (the others being Passover and Tabernacles) that all Jewish males were required to attend in Jerusalem (Deut. 16:16). It occurred in early summer after the conclusion of the grain harvest. This was a joyous occasion when the Israelites expressed their thanks to God for his provisions through the year and renewed their commitment to him.

The Holy Spirit’s arrival is described in terms of a mighty rushing wind and tongues of fire that settle on all of the disciples in the house. The immediate effect of the Spirit’s indwelling of the disciples is that they are each able to speak the local languages of the Jews who are spread out all over the world of that time.

Wind and fire are both commonly used in the Old Testament to describe the presence of God. With regard to wind, John Polhill writes:

Wind phenomena often accompany an appearance by God in the Old Testament (cf. 1 Kgs 19:11; Isa 66:15). In Greek pneuma has the double connotation of both wind and Spirit, and that connection is to be seen here. As in Ezekiel the wind, the breath of Yahweh, is God’s Spirit, which brings life in the vision of the dry bones (Ezek 37:9–14).

With regard to fire, Darrell Bock writes, “God’s presence comes with fire in the burning bush of Exod. 3:2 (Acts 7:30), the pillar of the fire in Exod. 13:21 (Deut. 4:33; 5:24–26; 18:16), before Elijah (1 Kings 18:38), and in association with Ezekiel’s call (Ezek. 1:13–14, 27). God is described as a consuming fire in Deut. 4:24 and 9:3 as an image of judgment.”

The disciples most likely pour out of the house and rush over to the crowded temple precincts. When they arrive, they loudly and ecstatically praise God in at least a dozen languages. The disciples attract a large crowd. Jews who are visiting Jerusalem for Pentecost, and possibly Jews who have moved to Jerusalem, but who were born in other parts of the world, are able to understand the words of these Galilean men in their own native languages. Galileans would not naturally know these languages, and so the crowd is amazed at what is happening.

There are two reactions to the disciples: 1) amazement and curiosity and 2) ridicule and accusations of drunkenness. In our next lesson, the apostle Peter will stand before the crowd and deliver his first-ever sermon about the resurrected Jesus.

Commentary on John 20b (Jesus Appears to the Twelve)

The Sunday evening of Jesus’ resurrection, his disciples are gathered in a house in Jerusalem, with the doors locked because they are afraid the Jewish leadership will find and arrest them. Jesus suddenly appears in the room with them and says “Peace be with you,” a common Jewish greeting, but filled with deeper meaning. D. A. Carson, in The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary , explains:

Though a common word, šâlōm was also the embracing term used to denote the unqualified well-being that would characterize the people of God once the eschatological kingdom had dawned. Jesus’ ‘” Shalom!” on Easter evening is the complement of “it is finished” on the cross, for the peace of reconciliation and life from God is now imparted … Not surprisingly it is included, along with “grace,” in the greeting of every epistle of Paul in the NT’ (Beasley-Murray, p. 379).

To prove that his body was physical, and not ghostly or immaterial, Jesus invites the disciples to look at the wounds in his hands and his side. Once they realize that he is physically present with them, the disciples are filled with joy.

Jesus then commissions them to continue his ministry after he is gone. He promises them the Holy Spirit as a seal on their authority to be his apostles (messengers). Jesus instructs them, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

Jesus is here referring to evangelism. Gerald Borchert, in John 12–21, vol. 25B, The New American Commentary , explains:

Thus one could say that Jesus’ followers are to make the Gospel so clear that it is evident where people stand on the nature of sin. When these texts are understood in this perspective, it should become clear that Jesus’ commission to his followers is not one of privileged judgment but of weighty responsibility to represent the will of God in Christ with extreme faithfulness and to be honest and authentic about their evaluations or judgments.

This statement by Jesus would have been especially comforting to believers in the first century because the traditional Jewish authorities in the local synagogues had been the arbiters of God’s demands. First-century believers had mostly been excommunicated from synagogues, so John is making clear to them that Jesus’ followers have become God’s messengers, not the Jewish religious institutions of the day.

Edwin Blum, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary , adds:

Forgiveness of sins is one of the major benefits of the death of Jesus. It is the essence of the New Covenant (cf. Matt. 26:28; Jer. 31:31–34). Proclaiming the forgiveness of sins was the prominent feature of the apostolic preaching in the Book of Acts. Jesus was giving the Apostles (and by extension, the church) the privilege of announcing heaven’s terms on how a person can receive forgiveness. If one believes in Jesus, then a Christian has the right to announce his forgiveness. If a person rejects Jesus’ sacrifice, then a Christian can announce that that person is not forgiven.

In verse 24, we learn that the disciple Thomas was not present on Resurrection Sunday when Jesus appeared before the Twelve. When the rest of the Twelve tell Thomas they saw Jesus, he is skeptical that Jesus is really alive. He likely believes that they saw a ghost or a spirit. Thomas needs to physically touch Jesus’ wounds before he believes that Jesus has risen from the dead.

One week later, the disciples are again gathered in the same house, and this time Thomas is with them. Again Jesus appears in a locked room among them. Jesus invites Thomas to inspect his hands and his side so that Thomas will believe that Jesus is risen from the dead. We are not sure if Thomas does touch Jesus, but regardless, he has seen enough!

In verse 28, Thomas exclaims the climactic confession of the Gospel: “My Lord and my God!” Thomas, the most skeptical of the Twelve, has proclaimed that Jesus is God, thus affirming the words of John in the prologue of his Gospel. D. A. Carson writes:

The thoughtful reader of this Gospel immediately recognizes certain connections: (1) Thomas’ confession is the climactic exemplification of what it means to honour the Son as the Father is honoured (5:23). It is the crowning display of how human faith has come to recognize the truth set out in the Prologue: ‘The Word was God …; the Word became flesh’ (1:1, 14). (2) At the same time, Jesus’ deity does not exhaust deity; Jesus can still talk about his God and Father in the third person. After all, this confession is set within a chapter where the resurrected Jesus himself refers to ‘my Father … my God’ (v. 17). This is entirely in accord with the careful way he delineates the nature of his unique sonship (5:16–30). (3) The reader is expected to articulate the same confession, as the next verse implies. John’s readers, like Thomas, need to come to faith; and this is what coming to faith looks like.

Jesus (and John) both recognize that virtually everyone who hears about Jesus after his resurrection will not have the physical evidence that Thomas had. John’s readers, and certainly all of us living today, must believe based on the testimony of others. We will not be able to see Jesus’ physical body standing right in front of us. To John’s readers and us, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Everyone who comes to faith in Jesus, not having seen him with their own eyes, is blessed by Jesus himself!

In the final two verses of chapter twenty, John clearly presents the purpose of his Gospel. John first notes that Jesus performed many other miracles (signs) while he was on earth, a probable acknowledgment on his part that he is aware of the twenty-plus other miracles reported in the Synoptic Gospels. John, we learn, specifically chose to highlight seven miracles (signs) in chapters 2-12, and then, even more importantly, the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus, so that readers would believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.

Commentary on John 20a (Jesus’ Resurrection)

Early Sunday morning, a woman named Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb and sees that the stone that was rolled in front of the tomb has been rolled back. This is the same Mary who has been a disciple of Jesus since he cast seven demons out of her (see Luke 8:2). She runs to tell Peter and John that someone has removed Jesus’ body from the tomb. D. A. Carson, in The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary , writes,

The robbing of graves was a crime sufficiently common that the Emperor Claudius (ad 41–54) eventually ordered capital punishment to be meted out to those convicted of destroying tombs, removing bodies or even displacing the sealing stones. John records no hint of the Jewish allegation that Jesus’ disciples were the ones who stole Jesus’ body (cf. Mt. 28:13–15), but the fact that such a charge could be levelled demonstrates that grave robbery was not uncommon. So it is not surprising that the sight of the removed stone prompted Mary Magdalene to draw the conclusion she did. In distress she ran to report her news to two of the most prominent of Jesus’ disciples, to Peter and the beloved disciple.

Peter and John run to the tomb, but John arrives first. He peers inside and sees that the linens which covered Jesus’ body are still there. Peter arrives and goes straight into the tomb and sees that not only the linens have been left behind, but the separate cloth that covered Jesus’ face has been folded neatly and placed a short distance away from the other linens. Carson remarks:

What seems clearest is the contrast with the resurrection of Lazarus (11:44). Lazarus came from the tomb wearing his grave-clothes, the additional burial cloth still wrapped around his head. Jesus’ resurrection body apparently passed through his grave-clothes, spices and all, in much the same way that he later appeared in a locked room (vv. 19, 26). The description of the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head does not suggest that it still retained the shape of the corpse, but that it had been neatly rolled up and set to one side by the one who no longer had any use for it. The description is powerful and vivid, not the sort of thing that would have been dreamed up; and the fact that two men saw it (v. 8) makes their evidence admissible in a Jewish court (Dt. 19:15).

John follows Peter into the tomb and based on the linens and face cloth being left behind, he believes that Jesus has risen from the dead. John mentions, parenthetically, that none of the disciples, at this point, understand that Scripture had predicted that Jesus must rise from the dead. At this point, Peter does not seem to have come to the same belief as John. Both of them return to the houses in Jerusalem where they are staying during the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

Mary Magdalene stays behind at the tomb (or comes back later to visit by herself) and weeps because she believes Jesus’ body has been stolen from the tomb. Mary peers into the tomb and sees two angels who ask her why she is crying. Mary laments that someone has stolen the body, but she then turns around and sees a man whom she does not recognize. The man also asks her why she is weeping and, also, whom she is seeking. She assumes he is a gardener, taking care of the grounds, and she begs him to tell her where the body of Jesus lies.

The man then calls her name and she immediately realizes that the gardener is not a gardener at all, but Jesus, risen from the dead. Mary probably falls to the ground and wraps her arms around Jesus’ feet and legs. She doesn’t want to lose him again, but she has misunderstood Jesus’ mission, for he is not going to resume his role as the earthly rabbi whom Mary had followed. He must return to heaven to reign with God the father and it is Mary’s job to tell the disciples. It is in this light that Jesus says to Mary, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Edwin Blum, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary , remarks,

That a woman would be the first to see Him is an evidence of Jesus’ electing love as well as a mark of the narrative’s historicity. No Jewish author in the ancient world would have invented a story with a woman as the first witness to this most important event. Furthermore, Jesus may have introduced Himself to Mary first because she had so earnestly sought Him. She was at the cross while He was dying (John 19:25), and she went to His tomb early on Sunday morning (20:1).

Mary does exactly as Jesus commands her. She finds the disciples in Jerusalem and tells them that she has just seen Jesus, face to face, and that he is ascending to his Father.

Commentary on Mark 15b (Jesus’ Crucifixion)

Crucifixion victims are often required to carry the horizontal crossbar of the cross, but Jesus is so weakened after his flogging that, sometime during the procession, the soldiers randomly choose a man from the crowd, Simon of Cyrene, to carry the crossbar for Jesus the rest of the way to Golgotha. Simon, and later his sons, Alexander and Rufus, would evidently become Christians, since Mark assumes his readers are familiar with them.

Mark’s account of the actual crucifixion is succinct. During the first three hours after Jesus is crucified, Mark reports the following: 1) Jesus is offered wine to deaden his pain, but he refuses to drink it, 2) Jesus’ garments are divided up among the four soldiers, 3) Jesus is crucified at roughly 9 am with two other men on either side of him, 4) a sign reading “King of the Jews” is affixed to the cross, indicating Jesus’ crime, 5) Jesus is mocked by spectators, Jewish religious leaders, and the two criminals crucified beside him.

After three hours on the cross, darkness comes over the land for the last three hours of Jesus’ life. Mark Strauss, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary) , offers five possible meanings for the darkness:

  • “It was a sign of mourning (Jer. 4:27–28).”

  • “Darkness was associated in the ancient world with the death of great men.”

  • “In the Scriptures, darkness is an apocalyptic sign of judgment and could be construed as signaling the advent of divine judgment.”

  • “The darkness also announces the great Day of the Lord in prophets such as Amos, and the darkness that settles on the land signifies that the day has dawned with a new beginning.”

  • “The darkness may veil the shame of the crucifixion: ‘God hides the Son from the blasphemer’s leering.’”

At roughly 3 pm, Jesus cries out, ““My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” What could Jesus mean by this statement? Craig Evans, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), writes:

The important thing to recognize here is that he was quoting Psalm 22:1, a Davidic psalm expressing David’s feelings of estrangement. Jesus was revealing that he was the fulfillment of the typology of the psalm, that he was experiencing forsakenness because of our sins. What exactly that forsakenness entailed is uncertain, but it likely stemmed from Jesus’ taking on our sins so that sin would be judged. As the apostle Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5: 21, God the Father ‘made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.’

Mark Strauss adds:

One could not expect a crucifixion victim to recite an entire psalm, but it is possible that citing the first verse of the psalm refers to the entire psalm. Without chapters and verses to identify specific passages, initial words or key phrases were cited (see Mark 12:26). If this is the case here, Jesus prays the opening words of this lament psalm that, when read through to the end, expresses not only bitter despair but also supreme confidence. This interpretation does not deny the real anguish that Jesus experiences but understands his cry as an expression of trust that God will intervene and ultimately vindicate him.

Some bystanders misunderstand Jesus to be calling for the prophet Elijah to rescue him. According to Craig Keener in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament , “Members of some circles of Jewish tradition believed that Elijah was sent like an angel to rescue famous teachers, in addition to his role in the time of the end.”

Finally, Mark reports, Jesus utters a loud cry and dies after six hours hanging on the cross. The way Jesus dies is unusual because crucifixion victims tended to last more than a day before succumbing to asphyxiation. Keener explains, “Crucifixion generally killed by asphyxiation: one became too weary to keep pulling one’s frame up on the crossbeam, the diaphragm was increasingly strained, and eventually one became unable to breathe. But death usually took a few days—much longer than the few hours Jesus suffered.”

James Brooks adds:

Most people who were crucified grew weaker and weaker and gradually and quietly expired. Mark’s account suggests that Jesus’ death was sudden and violent, that he was still quite strong at the moment of his death, that he voluntarily and deliberately died with the shout of a victor (cf. John 19:30). Therefore ‘breathed his last,’ although literal, is not an adequate translation in context. Mark’s concept of the death of Jesus is not unlike that of John 10:17–18.

When Jesus dies, one of the two giant curtains in the temple tears from top to bottom (we’re not told which). The outer curtain separated the sanctuary from the outer porch and the inner curtain separated the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. Regarding the inner curtain, the Mishnah reports it being a handbreadth thick, sixty feet long, and thirty feet wide. This second apocalyptic sign (darkness being the first) that Mark reports has both positive and negative significance. Strauss writes:

Being torn from top to bottom points to its irremediable destruction and to God as the agent. It may signify the end of the Jewish cult and the destruction of the temple. . . . The rending of the veil may also be interpreted as a decisive opening. All barriers between God and the people have now been removed (Heb. 10:19–20).

The centurion in charge of Jesus’ execution, after taking in everything he’s seen, pronounces, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” Mark also carefully notes that several women disciples of Jesus witness his death from a distance.

The profession of the centurion would have been important to Mark’s original audience. After all, earlier in the Gospel, a divine voice and demons have called Jesus the Son of God. Here, at the end of Gospel, we have the first human to do so, but he is a Gentile Roman soldier, not a Jew. James Brooks aptly comments, “At last [Jesus] is confessed as such by a human being who is a type of thousands and even millions of Gentiles who later will stand by faith before the cross and confess that the man Jesus of Nazareth is the unique Son of God.”

Did the centurion have a full understanding of who Jesus was? Doubtful, but he clearly knew that Jesus had a unique relationship to God. Mark Strauss writes:

After Julius Caesar was deified, his adopted son, Augustus, became widely known as ‘son of god’ (divi filius). It was not a title applied to emperors in general. This soldier transfers the title from the most revered figure in the Roman imperial cult to a Jew who has just been executed. The opening words of the Gospel (1:1) and this confession directly challenge the claims of the imperial cult. Jesus, not Augustus nor any other emperor, is Savior and Lord.

Jewish law (see Deut 21:22-23) demanded that a body be buried the day of death. In addition, since the Sabbath would begin at sunset on Friday (no work could be done on the Sabbath), there was little time for Jesus to be buried. Instead of his disciples stepping forward to bury him, Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin and secret admirer of Jesus, goes to Pilate and requests that Jesus’ body be given to him. None of Jesus’ friends or family had approached Pilate, likely out of fear, so Pilate acquiesces to Joseph’s request. But first, Pilate asks his centurion to confirm that Jesus is indeed dead because he is surprised at how quickly Jesus died.

Joseph takes Jesus’ body down from the cross, wraps a linen shroud around him, and then places him in a tomb cut out of rock. He then rolls a stone over the entrance to seal the tomb. The women disciples are watching the burial from a distance so that they know exactly where Jesus is buried. Thus Jesus is buried in a tomb before sunset Friday evening.