The Book of Acts (Part 2), Galatians and Thessalonians
Lesson 8 – The Book of Acts (Part 2), Galatians, and 1 Thessalonians
Dr. Craig Blomberg
Understanding the New Testament
This is lecture eight in the series introducing the New Testament. We left off at the end of our last talk in the Book of Acts towards the end of chapter 9. Beginning in verse 32 we come to the third segment of the first major half of Luke’s theological history of the first generation of Christianity. The first half, as we will recall, focuses primarily on the Christian mission in the Jewish world with Peter as the primary leader of this enterprise, but with each successive subsection the gospel is moving out to less and less predominantly or distinctively Jewish territory. In 9:32-12:24 we see the gospel advancing in those portions of Israel that had both God fearers, Gentiles or non-Jews who had come to believe in the God of Israel and practice some of its laws, perhaps even worshipping in the synagogues with its people but without fully converting to Judaism. The dominant event that this segment recounts is the dramatic vision from heaven that Peter receives even as God is preparing a Gentile centurion, or commander of a hundred troops, to receive a messenger from him, which thus brings Peter and Cornelius together and after Peter preaches the gospel Cornelius receives salvation along with those accompanying him. The gospel is moving out to God-fearers and not just full-fledged Jews. Because Peter receives a vision declaring all foods clean, he understands that God must be declaring all people clean since one of the major barriers to intimate fellowship with Gentiles, often occurring around meals and tables in the ancient world, was the unclean food that Gentiles regularly ate.
In the second half of the Book of Acts beginning in Acts 12:25 and 13:1 the scene shifts to the ministry and missionary journeys of Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles, as he calls himself, although Paul continues wherever possible to begin by preaching to his fellow Jews. But the pattern recurs often enough that before too long the majority of those listening to him in Jewish circles reject his message, even as a significant minority accept him and become Jesus’ followers. But he will then move on and continue primarily preaching and ministering in Gentile territory.
Paul’s first missionary journey probably spanning the years 47 or 48 to early 49 occurs with Barnabas and part way with John Mark into the cities of Cyprus, the island in the Mediterranean Sea, the southern shore of what we would today call Turkey, and then up into the central high plateau country. Paul’s new home base is no longer Tarsus but Syrian Antioch. From there he and Barnabas travel to the coast and then to Barnabas’ home island of Cyprus where among other things he confounds a sorcerer who has a Jewish name, Barjesus, making it all the more inappropriate for him to be practicing occult magic. We also see that the governor, Sergius Paulus, comes to faith as a result of what some have called power evangelism, countering supernatural power with a stronger supernatural power. From there the group travels to the southern coast of Turkey, but we learn little about any stay or evangelistic mission there. By the time we have surveyed all of Paul’s journeys we will see that he typically follows major roads going to major urban centers because reaching the cities in his world, as in many places in times throughout church history, then enables the message to go out to nearby rural areas whereas reaching rural peoples does not always cause the reverse effect, namely having a significant impact on the major cities. Why the exception then early in his missionary career? One possible answer is that archaeology has shown that Sergius Paulus had relatives in and around Pisidian Antioch, the largest of the cities in central Turkey, which Paul and Barnabas visit. It may also have something to do with an illness, because these were the cities of southern Galatia to which Paul would write in the Galatians in chapter 4 – that it was because of an illness I first preached the Gospel to you. Some have tried to link this with Paul’s famous thorn in the flesh from 2 Corinthians 12, considering a disease like malaria that was rampant in the swampy lowlands of southern Turkey and which people tried to recover from often times by retreating to the higher less humid plateau country in the middle of Galatia. Be that as it may, he preaches in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch, then moves on after a fair amount of rejection to preach to Gentiles, goes to the apparently almost exclusively Gentile city of Lystra where he interacts with the pagan superstition that think he and Barnabas are gods come down to earth, but Jews from Antioch arouse the ire of the people against them. He is nearly stoned to death and he continues on his way, but not without later returning to follow up on the fledging churches planted showing his remarkable courage for the sake of the gospel. It is during this point also that we read in Acts 15:1 that some came to Antioch from Jerusalem insisting that Gentile adult men coming to faith in Jesus had to be circumcised, that is, had to take on all of the demands of the law of the Jews and not simply convert directly from paganism to following Jesus. In a world without anesthesia one can understand how uncircumcised adult Gentile men would have found this a particularly challenging threshold to consider crossing. And theologically the council comes to the conclusion in Acts 15 made up of James, Peter, Paul, and Barnabas and others to sort this issue out that it is by faith alone that salvation comes to an individual, not by any works of the law. Even the restrictions that are suggested for Christians working among Jews for the sake of evangelism are not legal mandates, just as the conclusion that circumcision is not necessary does not mean that it might be voluntarily appropriate for the sake of unnecessarily offending Jews whom Christian believers would like to come to Christ. Thus the somewhat striking example of Paul circumcising Timothy who along with Silas becomes his two main traveling companions on his second journey shortly after the council has concluded that circumcision is not a requirement for salvation.
The second missionary journey begun in Acts 16 and carrying on into the middle of chapter 19 takes Paul and his companions further a field revisiting cities evangelized on the first missionary journey in southern Galatia, but then continuing all the way across to the continent of Europe to the city of Philippi where Lydia and her household, an apparently single, reasonably well-to-do Jewish woman becomes Paul’s first European convert. Trouble once again leads to danger for Paul and he is arrested with his imprisonment taking place for at least one night until, through a dramatic earthquake, he has the opportunity to escape, but refusing to do so he so impresses the Philippian jailer that he too comes to faith and he and his household are baptized. Paul moves on along the roads roughly paralleling the eastern seaboard of Macedonia and Achaia, the two provinces of Greece, comes to Thessalonica where we will see when we come to the Thessalonian epistles in a very short period of time the Gospel has dramatic effect in helping to plant a church there. Then on to the nearby city of Berea, famous in 17:11 for the praise that these listeners were more noble than those of Thessalonica, at least among the Jewish community, for they search their Scriptures daily to see if the things Paul was preaching were true. Later in Acts 17 Paul finds himself for a more extended stay in Athens, the capital of Greece and the historic center of culture and education and philosophy for that country, and in what has come to be known as the Mars Hill speech he preaches a model in cross-cultural evangelism focusing as he does wherever he goes on Jesus and the resurrection and the implications of that for all people of the world, but beginning again, as he tries to do in every location with points of common ground, this time among Greek philosophers, among those who worship an unknown god, which Paul wants to disclose to them. Reaching the people where they are and taking them from there via various conversational bridges to challenge them with the claims of Christ, a model for Christian evangelism in every day and age. From Athens Paul moves on to Corinth, a city with such a reputation for sexual immorality that to call a girl a Corinthian girl was in that part of the Greco-Roman world a slang term for prostitute. Not surprisingly this is the first place that Paul stays, or at least that we are told that Paul stays, for quite a long time, namely about a year and a half. And even after that we will see when we come to the Corinthian letters a very immature church with a lot of problems. Finally, he prepares to set sail back to Israel, to Jerusalem, and then returning to Syrian Antioch bringing his second missionary journey to a close.
His third missionary journey once again finds him traveling over land revisiting cities previously evangelized, but this time heading for and staying for nearly a three-year period of time in the major port of Asia Minor, the western province of what today would be called Turkey in the city of Ephesus. This was a center of ancient magic, of occult religion, so it is not surprising that we read about confrontations with demonic powers and the destruction of the scrolls containing the formula, incantations, chants, different ways in which Gentiles tried to communicate with and even manipulate their various gods and goddesses. It is also a place where a large riot threatens to run Paul out of town, but he departs secretly and quietly instead. Demetrius, leading a group of silversmiths, has protested that their trade in making the idols, the statues of the Greek goddess Artemas to whom there was an enormous temple erected in Ephesus, the Christian faith was having so powerful an impact on leading people out of paganism that their trade and their business was coming under threat. Would that Christian living today was so pure and holy that those businesses that profited from immoral or illegal activities would be threatened by going out of business.
After another return eastward and to home starting with Jerusalem and an offering to help with the particularly impoverished Christians there after the famine predicted back in Acts 11, Paul, though wanting to travel to Rome and points even further to the west in the empire that he has not yet visited, finds himself arrested by the Romans in the Jerusalem, not least to protect him from a mob that might have stoned him on the spot having heard false rumors that he was actually abolishing the law, teaching Jews not to obey it in his Christian evangelistic mission. After successive hearings before the Jewish Supreme Court and the Roman governor Felix, Paul languishes in prison from 57 to 59. Felix is replaced in 59 by Festus. Herod Agrippa II becomes the new ruler in Galilee and eventually in larger parts of Israel. Hearings before all of these different individuals give Paul several opportunities to recount his own story and he again regularly explains that he has committed no crime by anyone’s laws, but is on trial simply for believing in Jesus as the resurrected Lord. There is no indication that any of the courts or individuals before which Paul appears has a legal basis for charging him and, in fact, the succession of hearings ends with the ironic observation between Agrippa II and Festus that he could have been set free, but after two years of being held without legal reason in prison Paul has already appealed to the highest judge in the empire, the emperor in Rome, and therefore Agrippa and Festus send him there for his appeal to be heard. Lest this sound like nothing more than a case of tragic irony, we learn that God has promised to Paul through a word from Jesus in the night in prison that he not worry, that he will get to testify on behalf of Christ in Rome. Interestingly, this does not simply lull Paul into a false sense of security or into passive inaction, but rather gives him confidence as he hears of a plot against him which he finds a way of thwarting through his nephew sending a message to the Roman commander and through his appeal to the emperor that God will, in fact, honor his promise and get him there. God’s sovereign plans and responsible human action are never pitted against each other in Scripture but work hand in hand. Neither does Paul realize that the boat that sets sail in Acts 27 will founder after a violent two-week-long storm in the Mediterranean Sea on the island of Malta. More danger, more miracles, more delay before the end of winter and a spring commercial traveling vessel will enable the boat full of prisoners to finally make its destination in Rome. Here the book ends with Paul under house arrest awaiting the outcome of his trial, yet with the remarkable claims that the kingdom of God was advancing unhindered. Paul would have been free to receive visitors and as Christians and those who became Christians continued to invite others to come to the home and hear the message and as the various soldiers who took turns guarding Paul inevitably heard the message as well and passed it along to fellow soldiers in the Roman barracks housing the troops in that capital city, more and more people became followers of Jesus.
We may summarize four key theological emphases as the result of this rapid survey of Acts. 1) God oversees the development of the church and the progress of the gospel. Nothing happens accidentally. 2) The message of Christianity centers on the resurrection of Jesus making forgiveness of sins available to anyone who repents. 3) The offer of salvation, thus, is for all nationalities, all geographical regions, and all religious backgrounds on the same terms, and faith in Christ apart from good works of the Jewish law or any law. 4) And, finally, the church will progress and, indeed, flourish despite persecution, sometimes even because of it.
Two key applications of all this for Christians in any day and age – first, for the unbeliever, the salvation package first described at Pentecost, with an exception in Samaria and seeming exceptions with Cornelius, for the Spirit appears to come before we are told of any repentance, but, in fact, if one reads Peter’s sermon in Acts 10 carefully their belief comes right at the time Peter is talking about repentance and the Spirit descends. And then there are those odd followers of John the Baptist at the beginning of Acts 19 whom Luke calls believers, but we soon discover they have never even heard of the Holy Spirit, which means they cannot be Jews, they cannot even have known much about the message of John since the Spirit was central for him, so the reference to believers seems merely in this context to be a description of those who have some vague belief of some certain things associated with the Christian faith but not genuine, saving faith. In all other instances, and thus even in these two seemingly exceptional instances, we have an unbroken pattern, that salvation comes through repentance, believing in Jesus, outwardly symbolized by baptism and inwardly ratified by the reception of the Holy Spirit and the experience of the forgiveness of sins. There is much more involved in the Christian life than these foundational events, but this much, no more, no less, is fully adequate for the salvation, for making people right with God, but it is only through Jesus Christ, for as Acts 4:12 puts it, “There is no other name under heaven by which people must be saved.”
Applying the major themes of Acts to Christians, here are models for true New Testament churches in any age. How to know what is timeless versus what is situation-specific can change from one context to another requires reading all of Acts, indeed reading all of the New Testament, and seeing what practices and patterns remain constant and what take a variety of forms. Alleviating poverty remains constant, the methods vary. The need for regular Christian fellowship, growth, nurture, apostolic teaching, celebration of the sacraments or ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, prayer, evangelism, all remain constants. The particular organizational forms and methods used to accomplish those ends consistently vary and we could give additional examples.
But now we are ready to turn to the New Testament letters, the epistles of Paul, grouped together first as we noted in a our opening lecture and here we will continue just as the Book of Acts did in chronological sequence going back in time from the end of the Book of Acts and looking briefly at each letter in what seems most likely to the be the chronological order in which they were written, fitting them into the places in the Book of Acts that we have already described.
The earliest letter appears to have been Galatians, although traditionally only a small portion of north central Turkey, to use modern terminology, would have referred to itself as Galatia, the Roman provincial reorganization of the empire into larger administrative territories led to the cities evangelized in the Book of Acts by Paul including Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe, all to be part of a larger territory known as Galatia making historic Galatia just the northern half of the larger province. It was most likely this southern half that Paul has in mind in addressing this letter, which means that we can date Galatians to about 49 A.D. after Paul’s first missionary journey, but just before the apostolic council of Acts 15. This explains how Peter can still be uncertain how to deal with the issue of eating with Gentiles who eat unclean food. Yes, he has by this time received the vision from heaven allowing him to eat with Cornelius, but Cornelius was a God-fearer already in route to becoming Jewish, perhaps. Does this principle apply to total pagans or Gentiles? And even if it allows table fellowship, does it mean that Gentiles are free from having to keep any of the distinctively ritual or ceremonial or civil laws of the Jews? The earlier we can date a letter to the Galatians, the more understandable is the action that Paul describes having to confront Peter over when he came to Syrian Antioch (see 2:11-15).
Understanding an early date and a southern Galatian audience also helps us make sense of little details like Galatians 3:1 where Paul uses the rare word often translated “bewitched” – “who has bewitched you O foolish Galatians?” Language applicable only to very superstitious, traditional, pagan, magical beliefs or occult practices. Precisely the thing that was dying out in some parts of the empire, more urban locations like Athens and Rome, but still a problem in the more isolated rural areas like those of southern Galatia tying in perhaps very closely with the story in Acts 14 in which Paul and Barnabus were mistaken for gods, but then not long afterwards treated as virtual demons, violent swings of an interpretive pendulum from one extreme to another.
The circumstances therefore of the letter involve the debate over keeping the law, which comes to a head with the clash between Paul and Peter over table fellowship with Gentiles. A large party of what Paul calls Judaizers, people insisting that Gentiles become, as it were, Jews first in order to become Christians is now similarly troubling the Galatians as it had afflicted Syrian Antioch. The date is approximately seventeen years after Paul’s conversion in 32 (see the references to fourteen plus three years having elapsed in Galatians 1:18 and 2:1). Paul’s letter can therefore be divided into three major segments, roughly one for each of the two chapters of the book.
In 1:1-2:14 Paul has to, once again, defend and reestablish his authority as an apostle, as one who has seen the resurrected Lord on equal grounds with the twelve apostles in Jerusalem, and he does so by describing how his message and call came directly from God and how each time he did go to Jerusalem, his understanding of the Gospel and his part in the Christian mission was ratified and reaffirmed and how when Peter did come to Syrian Antioch and hypocritically backed away from agreed upon principles, Paul rebuked him and Peter was unable to effectively reply.
It is difficult to know if 2:15-21 continue Paul’s words to Peter on that occasion or if in a world without quotation marks or any felt need for them, Paul’s words to Peter come to an end at 2:14, and 2:15-21, in essence, form the theological thesis or central lesson of the epistle addressed now directly to the Galatians. Either way, 2:15-21 sets up chapters 3 to 4 in which Paul defines and defends justification – being declared righteous by God – as accomplished through faith and not works of any law. He does so by showing how Abraham, the very father of the Jewish nation, was justified by faith even before he acted on that faith in obeying God in a variety of ways and four-hundred plus years before the law was given to Moses to show the Israelites how to live out their faith. He defends these convictions also by showing how the age of the law, centuries old as it was, was nevertheless temporary and now with the arrival of the Messiah and the messianic age, the age of the law had come to an end and the principle of living by faith became even clearer as one reverted back to the original state of affairs before the giving of the law, salvation by faith alone. He reminds the Galatians how even the law itself contains numerous examples that point forward to Jesus as the fulfillment of the law so that now one pleases God and is made right with him only by trusting in the completed work of Jesus on the cross paying the penalty for our sins which we could never pay for ourselves and in a way which we could never deserve. Because it is not based on human effort, this plan of salvation is true for Jew and Gentile alike, Galatians 3:28 – for slave and free, for male and female. Dramatically in contrast to one pharisaic prayer in which a faithful Orthodox Jewish male prayed, “I thank God that you have made me Jew and not Gentile, free and not slave, a man and not a woman.”
Finally, in chapters 5 and 6 Paul goes on to describe the nature of Christian freedom. Freedom from the law is not freedom from moral living, but freedom to serve a living God. Faith expressing itself through love, Galatians 5:6. A life inspired and directed by the Spirit producing the fruit of 5:22-23 – of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, self-control, and the like. These things cannot ever be legislated or produced simply by a long list of dos and don’ts. The gospel is not a new law, the gospel fulfills the law. Abstract principles like love for God and neighbor are acted on situation by situation with the guidance of both Testaments and without jettisoning the absolute moral commands of Scripture, but without implying that those cultural customs that varied from one time and place to the next, so dear and precious to Jewish thinking, in particular, had to be preserved unchanged everywhere the Christian message spread.
To sum up the theology of Galatians it is hard to do better than the Protestant reformer from the sixteenth century, Martin Luther, when he summed up this letter as the charter of Christian liberty. A foundational document defining how Christians become free, free from the sin that enslaves them, free from the penalty of that sin, and thus free to establish a relationship with God through the work of Christ on the cross, empowered by the Holy Spirit who comes to dwell in believers and produces the good works that do not save, but demonstrate the presence of salvation in an individual. Christians are thus free from every type of legalism that requires certain actions for salvation or claims that certain sins can lead one to forfeit salvation. The only unforgivable sin, as we recall from Mark 3, in all of Scripture is the blasphemous, total, absolute denial and repudiation of Christ from which one never seeks to repent. Throughout the world, unfortunately, there continue to be beliefs and ceremonies, rituals and practices that are held up by many, if not as marks or requirements of actual salvation, then surely of Christian maturity, and while in given situations certain behaviors do often signal Christian maturity, to hold up any of these as absolute and unchanging for all time risks falling into the very trap of the Judaizers in Galatia and when it reaches a level where people are requiring certain good works or practices for salvation, even such fundamental ordinances as baptism or celebrating the Lord’s Supper, then one has crossed the boundary, which leads Paul in chapter 1 of Galatians in the harshest of language to pronounce divine condemnation. Because in teaching anyone that certain works are a requirement for salvation, if others believe and follow, they too are damned for all eternity. But in context where avoiding certain practices or participating in certain events are merely bridges to evangelism, then Paul bends over backwards to accommodate himself (see 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 with its teaching on being all things to all people).
We pass finally in this lecture to start a look at the Thessalonian epistles. 1 Thessalonians was written shortly after Paul planted the church in Thessalonica and thus probably in about A.D. 50, more urban than the cities of Galatia but still a far cry from, say, Athens. Paul had spent at most a few months and possibly only a few weeks with these new Christians (see the beginning of Acts 17) and yet the opening three chapters of 1 Thessalonians involve more unbroken praise than any other section of similar length anywhere in the letters of the New Testament. In 1:3 he speaks of their faith, hope, and love. In 1:9 and 10 he talks about how others, presumably non-Christians in communities as Paul just begins to evangelize tell them they have already heard the gospel and seen exemplary models of its life from the Thessalonian church. And 2:13 gives the explanation for this rapid growth and effectiveness – these new believers understood the message of the gospel to be God’s very divine word and not merely a human message filled with divine power to have remarkable and remarkably positive effects on their corners of the world. Thus, chapters 1 to 3 of 1 Thessalonians encourage continued growth; “excel still more” is a concise summary of what Paul is trying to say here.
And then in chapters 4 to 5 he exhorts them to godly living, especially in light of Christ’s coming return. 4:16 to 17 has, at least in recent church history, been a somewhat controversial passage as people struggle to understand the imagery of what has been called a rapture; believers being caught up to meet the Lord in the air and so be ever with the Lord. Is this a separate event from Christ’s public, visible return to earth to establish his earthly kingdom at the end of human history as we now know it? Some say yes, it is separate. Here believers are caught up to meet the Lord in the air and therefore the assumption is they continue on back to heaven. Other says, no, since elsewhere there are no clear passages indicating two separate stages of Christ’s return; once only part way to earth to pick up believers and help them escape the earth for awhile and then once at the very end when he comes back with those believers to set up his earthly kingdom. The Bible is not fully clear, so we should tolerate differing interpretations on this topic. But by far the most dominant answer throughout church history, which seems to this lecturer to be the best, is that the term used for meeting the Lord in the air here is one which in the Greek language often was used for a welcoming party leaving a Roman city through the city gates, going out on the road to greet a visiting king or military general returning home in triumph, or honored guests, and then escorting him and any companions that might be with him back to the city to honor him publicly. Thus, it makes good sense to see the imagery here metaphorically referring to a human, Christian welcoming party of Jesus returning to earth, going out of the earthly gates, as it were, to meet the Lord in the air and then usher him and escort him back to earth in triumph. We will pick things up with further reflection in 2 Thessalonians on this topic in our next lecture.