Acts - Part 3

Course: Introduction to the New Testament: Gospel and Acts

Lecture: Acts - Part 3

(Note: Even though this is a continuation of the Gospels: an Introduction and survey, it is also listed as the third of the lectures & sound files used in conjunction with the textbook from Pentecost to Patmos as stated in the sound file, itself. According to the lecturer, it is taken from the course: Acts to Revelation by Craig Blomberg, the sequel to this course. The header of this lecture, however, is entitled: Acts Part 3, of which there are a total of five parts.)

I. Review: An Outline of Acts

We come to the second half of the Book of Acts and entering a section that largely depicts the early Christian mission to the gentiles, mostly from the advantage of Saul of Tarus, now a Christian and soon to take on his Latin/Greek name of Paul as he begins to minister in a predominate gentile territory. The first panel takes us through chapter 16:5 and reflects on what has become known to be his first missionary journey followed by the Jerusalem or Apostle Council. If we trace the contours of that journey from the map, it is the shortest of his four trips, beginning at his newly established home base of Syrian Antioch. Perhaps because Barnabas was a Cypriot and in keeping with the principle of starting at home and moving afield, Paul, Barnabas and John Mark as an initial traveling trio go to the island of Cyprus preaching in the two major port cities of Salamis and Paphos, one on the east coast and the other on the west coast. At Paphos, there is the breakthrough of the conversion of Sergius Paulus, the Roman Proconsul in a context of what the late John Windber would have called power evangelism after a miracle of temporary blindness inflicted Bar Jesus who was practicing pagan sorcery and therefore even from a purely Jewish point, say nothing of Jewish perspective, deserved some kind of punishment to delving into such idolatrous belief and practice. But the more significant point is the evangelistic impact it has on the Roman ruler there.

From Cyprus, the little troop of preachers proceeds to the southern coast of what today we would call Turkey but was then the province of Pamphylia. Instead of evangelizing the towns of Perga and Attalia, (There are records of Paul stopping at these towns as he travelled up to Galatia) he moves instead in the high plateau country of Galatia preaching in the cities of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe before retracing himself back back through those communities, to the coast and home again. What led him to this somewhat out of the way set of locations; the two most likely answers related to the relatives of Sergius Paulus lived and had leadership roles in Pisidian Antioch. The Roman leader may well have urged Paul and his band to go to that location to share the Gospel news. The other explanation involves the fact that the coastal marsh lands around Perga were notorious for mosquitos and for malaria in those days. One plausible explanation of Paul’s thorn in the flesh (2nd Corinthians 11) is that it was malaria. Paul in Galatians 4 will say that it was because of an illness that he first came to the Galatians and malaria is the type of disease that recurs in a world before the kind of medicine that can be used to treat it today. But in between the recurrences which often gives it victims prolong periods of good health and for Paul to have been able to travel as he did, his problem was not so debilitating that he wasn’t able to take on these rigorous trips. This recurring nature to malaria would also explain the otherwise strange wording in 2nd Corinthians 12 that three times he pleaded with the Lord to remove this problem. One would have thought if he had some constant chronic problem that he would have pleaded much more often than this or that he would have worded things differently prior to his recognition telling him that he would have to endure this experience long term. This remains speculative.

Paul and Barnabas proceeded whereas Mark chose not to go with them in a way that he was criticized, thinking that Mark motives were misguided. There was also a disruption between Paul and Barnabas at the beginning of Paul’s second missionary journey which led to a different team made up of Paul with Luke and Silas like Luke Barnabas decides to go his separate way.

II. Exegetical notes on Acts 13-14

In turning to some exegetical highlights during these two chapters, we can see some recurring patterns that will happen again in their later travels. Because of the consistency of these patterns, they are more likely to reflect normative principles. Paul still goes to the Jew first as he put it in Romans 1:16. He has not rejected them in receiving the Gospel but often is rejected by a significant number of them not long after he begins preaching in local synagogues so that he then turns to the gentiles and fulfilled his unique commission. His messages often begin with common ground based either on special revelation on Judaism or general revelation of the pagan world that Paul knew about and then finds ways to bridge the transition to the Gospel message that centers on Christ. With the exception of some of the cities in Southern Galatia, he spends his time between the cities in Galatia and Asia. Even at the cost of risking his own life in places where he had been in danger, he was concerned in following up young Christians to make sure they were growing in the faith and there is the consistent informal harassment and persecution by local authorities initially predominately Jewish but later by the end of his life, they become Roman.

Specific details, not as consistent throughout all of Paul’s journeys include the use of ‘power evangelism’ which we have already described with Bar-Jesus or Elymas the magician. Probably appropriate and perhaps at times only appropriate, the situations where the occult power is equally manifested and needed to be challenged head-on. There is the core kerygma that we find particularly in Acts 13 in Cilicia and Antioch which was combined with the contextualization of each speech being preached. However, there is a common core in focusing on Jesus and his resurrection and repentance for the forgiveness of Sins. It is interesting to see in the town of Lystra in southern Galatia the uniquely isolated manifestation of the old Greco-Roman myths where mythology still reigned. We talked about that some time ago on one of the opening lectures on the religious background to the New Testament. The story says that they were rejected except for one farmer and his wife who were later spared in a subsequent earthquake. The transmission of this tradition led the people of Lystra to virtually worship Paul and Barnabas as gods and called them Zeus and Hermes, perhaps because Barnabas was the large dignified, good looking individual as Zeus was portrayed in statues and paintings with Paul being the small energetic talkative messenger god that Hermes was regularly believed to be. Once Paul and Barnabas debunked this misplaced worship then the superstition reared its ugly head in the form of being consider quasi-diabolical people by the neighboring Jews stirring up trouble.

III. The Apostolic Council (Acts 15)

Finally, in this panel that combines the first missionary journey of Paul with the council in Jerusalem, we need to reflect some significant points of those events as described in Acts 15. The opening verse depicts the key issue as circumcision being required for salvation. There are three groups of speakers and positions that are reflected. Paul and Barnabas focused on the undeniable experiences of miracles and gentiles coming to true Christian faith. Peter speaks about faith from his earlier backing off of principles on which Paul and Peter agreed as described in Galatians 2:11-14. Now speaking with one voice with Paul and his companions as he declares in chapter 15 verses 11, we believe that it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, we Jews, just as the gentiles. James, the chief elder in Jerusalem, the half-brother of Jesus and author of the Epistle of James, perhaps only a couple of years previous to this time. As chief negotiator, the one whose final word settles the argument and from Amos in the Septuagint to demonstrate that in the last days in the Messianic age, the gentiles will be welcomed and united with Jews on equal terms with them. There is however, a decree; a verdict that is rendered by means of a letter to different regions where Judaizes have entered. Some have seen it as a new law or a very minimal application from the Torah as later rabbinic traditions would itemize from a so-called law of Noah that would put an encumberment even on the gentiles.

The language seemed much too weak for that to be a binding legislation, particularly with the final sentence in Acts 15:29 saying, ‘you will do well to avoid these things, namely obtaining from food scarified to idols from blood and meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.’ The rationale for this specific cluster of four items is not entirely clear. Again, there are those who have suggested that these are, if not laws, still principles deeply embedded either by extrapolation from Leviticus 18 or from the oral tradition of a Noachian Code, a requirement in those contexts for gentiles. But perhaps more likely, all of these were key elements of pagan worship in the pagan temples. And as much as Paul in Corinthians 8:10 and in Romans 14 and 15 have to distinguish between the morally gray area of simply eating food sacrificed to idols in neutral context. Anything that could cause the person to move into the context of pagan worship is highly forbidden.

Then finally as this panel draws to a close with the opening verses of Acts 16 culminating in 16:5, we have the startling juxtaposition of Paul circumcising Timothy in addition to a new band of travelers that set out on the second missionary journey, he picks up in the town of Lystra. Because Timothy’s father was Greek and his mother was Jewish, he had remained uncircumcised but with his mother being a Jew, according to tradition, Timothy should have been circumcised. How can this be just after such a vigorous debate that led to the conclusion that circumcision was not necessary for Christians? The answer is that no one is claiming that this is a requirement for salvation as it was allegedly in 15:1, rather this is a clear application of 1st Corinthians 9:19-23 of Paul being all things to all people and not wanting to put unnecessary stumbling blocks in the way of non-Christian Jews coming to faith the first time rather than as would have been the case in Acts 15 kowtowing to the demands of the Christian Jews who in fact were arguing for a central work or ritual as a requirement for salvation.