Tag Archives: Darrell Bock

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.

How Did Paul Find Common Ground with Greek Intellectuals in Acts 17?

Darrell Bock, in Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, provides an excellent analysis of Paul’s speech to the Athenian Areopagus in Acts 17. Bock demonstrates how the beginning of Paul’s oration found common ground with his Greek audience. By studying Paul’s technique, we can learn how to find common ground with members of our culture who are biblically illiterate.

In Acts 17:24-25, Paul says, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”

Bock writes:

Thus God is defined in a twofold way. The first is as Creator of all. Larkin (1995: 257) notes that the Epicureans had similar views. The second idea is that God is not contained in a temple and, by implication, is not reflected by an idol. This second remark recalls Stephen’s view and the basic view of Judaism (1 Kings 8:27; Isa. 66:1–2; Acts 7:47–50; on this use of ‘world’ in relation to creation, see Wis. 9:9; 11:17; 2 Macc. 7:23; Josephus, Ant. preface 4 §21). The idea that a temple cannot contain the gods is something some other Greeks also recognized, as Euripides, frg. 968, expresses the idea that a house built by craftsmen could not enclose the divine form (Bruce 1988a: 336n65).

Paul’s emphasis is on God as Sustainer and Creator, along with the idea that God does not need humans for anything. The Greeks shared this idea of deity as independent (Aristobulus, Hist. Alex. frg. 4; Euripides, Heracles 1345–46, ‘God … is in need of nothing’; Fitzmyer 1998: 608).

In Acts 17:26-27, Paul says,

And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us.

Bock writes:

The reference to Adam is intended to show that all people have their roots in the Creator God. Indeed, humanity is to seek God. Johnson (1992: 315–16) notes a similar argument in Philo, Spec. Laws 1.6–7 §§32–40, especially 1.7 §36: ‘Nothing is better than to seek the true God.’ This affirmation would be hard for the Athenians, who prided themselves in being a superior people, calling others barbarians. . . .

Paul describes the Greeks as humans seeking God in their own imperfect way in the hope that they may ‘get a hold’ of God—and this goal is attainable because God is close (Deut. 30:11; Josephus, Ant. 8.4.2 §108 [God is close to his own]; among the Greeks, Seneca, Moral Ep. 41.1, ‘God is near you, with you, within you’). Although the Greeks had similar expressions, this is not a mere intellectual attainment, which the Greeks tended to emphasize. Rather, there is a personal dimension that leads to serving and honoring God in truth, as verses 30–31 will show (Marshall 1980: 288; Larkin 1995: 257, ‘a gracious, personal Creator, Ruler and Sustainer of all’). In effect, Paul is saying that the Greeks’ effort proceeds with uncertainty until they understand what God has revealed. . . .

Witherington (1998: 529) is right to contrast what is happening here with a famous speech of Dio Chrysostom, Man’s First Conception of God (Olympic Discourse 12.28), to which Paul’s remarks are often compared. There Stoic ideas are used positively to declare how people have innate conceptions of God and all are kin to God. Paul says that there is a kinship at creation but that this is not enough. Fellowship requires that one respond to God as God’s creature, as one accountable to the Creator and his divine revelation.

In Acts 17:28, Paul quotes popular Greek writings.  “In him we live and move and have our being”; “For we are indeed his offspring.”

Bock writes:

This text about living, moving, and having our being in the Deity appears to allude to pagan ideas (BAGD 432 §3; BDAG 545 §3). Polhill (1992: 375–76) discusses the debate over whether this statement is rooted in a specific passage in Epimenides of Crete (ca. 600 BC), a point that is unlikely given the frequency of the thought in ancient thinking. An association with Epimenides goes back to Clement of Alexandria (Stromata 1.14.59; among the Greeks, a citation from Isho’dad of Merv is also known; Bruce 1990: 384; Williams 1990: 308; Barrett 1998: 847). These citations suggest a widespread belief that people exist by God’s creation and sustenance, so that God is not far off.

In addition, ‘we are his offspring’ (γένος ἐσμέν, genos esmen). The expression that we are God’s offspring comes from another pagan poet, Aratus (ca. 315–240 BC), Phaenomena 5 (some scholars also note Cleanthes, Hymn to Zeus; Marshall 1980: 289; but Fitzmyer 1998: 611 rejects a connection to Cleanthes). Paul explicitly notes this connection in introducing the citation as coming from ‘some of your poets.’ Paul is working with ideas in the Greek world that are familiar to the Athenians and only alludes to Scripture in his speech instead of quoting it directly. The text from Aratus, as Paul uses it, recognizes the shared relationship all people have to God. It also makes a more subtle point when the remark about being God’s children is repeated in verse 29: we are God’s creation; we do not create him by making images of the gods (Witherington 1998: 530). Thus the remark does express Paul’s view in this limited sense. . . . Paul contextualizes the citation and presents it in a fresh light, setting up his critique. He takes a Greek idea of the ‘spark of the divine being’ in us as tied to Zeus and speaks of being made as God’s children by the Creator, alluding to our being made in God’s image.

Given the common ground Paul has found with the Greek intellectuals of the Areopagus in verses 24-28, he then introduces new arguments in verses 29-31, ultimately leading to the resurrection of Jesus. Hopefully, you can see that this methodology is far more productive than Paul jumping straight to the resurrection of Jesus. It requires a shorter leap for the members of the Athenian council, and some of them do respond positively to Paul’s message.

In like manner, when we engage anyone with the truths of Christianity, we must find common ground first. Does our friend believe in a Creator God? Do they believe in the supernatural? What do they think of the Bible? Can it be trusted? Is it historically accurate? Do they think Jesus really existed or that he was a legendary figure? These are the kinds of questions that need to be answered to find common ground in our day. This often requires effort and patience that many of us don’t have. But if we skip this step, our evangelism will fail more often than not.

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 10 (Gentile Pentecost)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arnold notes that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do the Three Accounts of Paul’s Conversion in Acts Contradict Each Other?

The conversion of Saul/Paul is so important to the author of the Book of Acts that he presents the story three times (Acts 9, 22, 26). Each version is different, and this fact has led some critics to say that the accounts are contradictory. But is that necessarily the case?

First, we must note that there are several common elements in the three versions:

  • Saul is on his way to Damascus to gather up Christians.
  • He sees an intense light.
  • The Lord asks why Saul is persecuting him.
  • Saul asks who the speaker is.
  • Jesus reveals that it is he.

What are the differences? Darrel Bock, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), writes:

The biggest differences in the accounts have to do with whether the men traveling with Saul see the light and hear nothing (22:9) or stand speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one (9:7). . . . Another difference is that Ananias does not appear at all in the Acts 26 account. . . . Another key difference between the accounts is that Saul does not mention his call to reach the Gentiles in the account given in Acts 9, whereas he shares this detail in Acts 22 and 26.

Bock then argues that each of these differences can be reconciled. About the different experiences of the men traveling with Saul,

The elements at play here can be reconciled (Witherington 1998, 312– 13), as for instance in the following way: The men hear a sound, but it is not intelligible to them; they also see a light but not Jesus himself. Only Saul sees someone in the light and is able to discern a speaking voice in the sound. Saul’s companions experience something less than the full event, which means that the appearance is neither an entirely private vision nor a fully disclosed public event. It is a public event whose details are for one man alone, Saul of Tarsus.

John Polhill, in Acts, vol. 26, The New American Commentary, agrees with Bock:

Paul’s traveling companions served as authenticators that what happened to Paul was an objective event, not merely a rumbling of his inner psyche. They heard a sound, but they did not see the vision of Jesus. Acts 22:9 says that they saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who spoke with Paul. The two accounts are not contradictory but underline the same event. Paul’s companions heard a sound and saw a light. They could verify that an objective heavenly manifestation took place. They did not participate in the heavenly communication, however, neither seeing the vision of Jesus nor hearing the words spoken to Paul. The revelation was solely to Paul.

Regarding Ananias being left out of Acts 26, Bock writes, “This may be in part because the book has already mentioned him in detail twice, in Acts 9 and 22. Luke chooses not to be redundant on this detail, and so he provides a telescoped account.”

Regarding Saul not mentioning his call to the Gentiles in Acts 9, “Ananias notes in 9:15 that Saul would be called to a Gentile mission, so we probably have another example of telescoping. Another possibility is that Luke chose not to note this detail in his third-person narrative because the Gentile mission had not yet taken place, but this argument is somewhat weakened by the mention of the mission to Ananias. In any case, Saul’s not mentioning his Gentile mission in Acts 9 is simply an outcome of Luke’s literary choice, the exact reason for which is not clear.”

Bock concludes:

As is common in ancient retellings, each version has some variation so that each adds something to the reader’s understanding. Witherington (1998, 303– 15) has a helpful discussion of the relationship between these three accounts. He stresses that all of them are summaries and are not intended to provide comprehensive information.

Commentary on Acts 9 (Conversion of Saul/Paul)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.