Acts 8

Posted January 21, 2009 by Charles II
Categories: Uncategorized

This chapter recapitulates Saul’s passive participation in the stoning of Stephen and describes his transition to an active destroyer of the church, imprisoning the faithful and forcing all except the apostles to flee [1]. But rather than diminishing the church, persecution spread its teachings. This chapter focuses on the evangelism of Philip, who exorcised spirits, baptized, and healed in an unnamed city in Samaria. An acclaimed sorcerer [2] who had been called the Great Power, Simon was one of many who were baptized. Peter and John came and transmitted the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands[3]. Simon tried to buy knowledge of the power from them. Peter cursed Simon [4] and told him to repent and pray for having had such a thought. Simon asks Peter to pray for him [5].

Next, an angel of the Lord sends Philip to the Jerusalem-Gaza road, which is called a desert road. There Philip meets a eunuch who is the treasurer of the Ethiopian queen Candace, riding in a chariot on his return and reading scripture. The Holy Spirit directs Philip to approach the chariot and stay near it [6]. Philip asks the eunuch if he understands the scripture he is reading. The eunuch confesses that he does not, and asks Philip to explain a passage in Isaiah describing the suffering servant. The eunuch asks to be baptized and orders the chariot to be stopped. They both went into the water, but when they emerge, the Holy Spirit transported Philip to Azotus. From there, he traveled around preaching until he reached Caesarea [7].

Notes
1. Matthew Henry says that Saul assented with delight to the murder of Stephen and he notes that there was no respecting of gender in the persecution. He also points out that in Acts 26, Saul confesses to having forced followers of Jesus to blaspheme and even urged that they be condemned to death. Notably, the apostles were not dispersed, unlike the rest of the church.
2. The word for practicing the arts of sorcerery is mageuo and occurs only in this instance in the New Testament. However, in Acts 13, the magos bar-Jesus/Elymas appears. The concept of sorcery is also infrequent in the scriptures. The most memorable example occurs in the plagues of Exodus. The Egyptian sorcerers (Hebrew kashaph) and magicians (Hebew chartome) are consulted in Exodus 7. Kashaph occurs six times and chartome occurs ten times, mostly in Exodus. The terms used when Saul consults the “witch” of Endor are ‘owb (medium) and yidd@oniy (spiritist). The latter are strongly censured in Mosaic law. Kashaph (who apparently invoked their magic through prayer) also come in for censure, but chartome (apparently scribes) appear to be unsanctioned.
3. Again there is an emphasis that baptism is purely for repentance and that the acceptance of the Holy Spirit is a separate act
4. Peter says that bitterness has induced Simon to try to pay for the gift of the Holy Spirit, and made him captive to sin.
5. This echoes Saul and Samuel in 1 Sam. 15
6. We can infer from this that the chariot is moving. Later, the eunuch orders the chariot to be stopped.
7. Azotus, which is modern-day Ashdod, was one of the principal cities of the Philistines, as was Gaza. Caesarea was a former Phoenician port, which Herod dedicated to Augustus, and was the site at which the Jewish rebellion against the Romans began.

Advertisements

Acts 7

Posted December 7, 2008 by Charles II
Categories: Uncategorized

In this chapter of Acts, Stephen is tried by the Sanhedrin [1]. In answer to the charges laid by members of the Synagogue of Freedmen [2], he re-tells the story of the Jewish people, then presents the accusation to the Jewish leaders that they are prideful and irreligious [3], resistant to the urgings of the Spirit of God, murderous of the prophets, murderers of Jesus, and ultimately lawless. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen sees Jesus, the glory of God, and God Himself. When he tells the crowd what he sees, they become enraged, cover their ears and yell, rush at him, drag him out of the city and stone him [4]. Stephen, however, is no longer at their mercy. He asks Jesus not to hold the crowd responsible for his murder, commends his soul into the hands of Jesus, and “falls asleep[5].” 

In this chapter, we also meet Saul.  We are told that the witnesses against Stephen lay their clothes at Saul’s feet as the crowd is stoning Stephen and that Saul gives his approval to the stoning of Stephen.

So, there are three central issues. How does Stephen’s telling of the story of the Jewish people compare and contrast with scripture as we have it?  What is Stephen’s experience of God? And what is Saul’s role in Stephen’s death? 

As to the first, consider Stephen’s version of Jewish history. It begins with the departure of Abraham from Mesopotamia (Iraq) to live in Haran in Chaldea (Syria) and then to Canaan. In Canaan, God foretells Abraham of the future enslavement in Egypt and teaches him the rite of circumcision. Abraham circumcises Isaac, Isaac fathers Jacob, and Jacob becomes the progenitor of the twelve tribes. He calls the children of Jacob “the twelve patriarchs,” and says that “the patriarchs” sold Joseph into slavery. This is an odd locution that implies that Joseph was not a patriarch. Stephen tells of Joseph’s sojourn in Egypt, the famine, the arrival of 75 of Jacob’s family in Egypt (Gen. 24 says 70; Ex. 1 says 75), and the burial of Jacob and his sons in a cave in the land (Stephen calls it a tomb) that in Schechem Abraham purchased from Hamor (Genesis says it was Ephron the Hittite).

Stephen turns to the story of the genocide ordered by the new Pharoah in which the Hebrews are told “to throw out their newborn babies.”  Exodus says they are instructed to throw the babies into the Nile. The adoption of Moses, his training, his slaying of the Egyptian, and his flight from Egypt follows the account in Genesis closely. It specifies that Moses thought that the Hebrews would recognize that God had chosen him, but Exodus does not claim this. Fleeing to Midian, Moses waits 40 years for God to speak to him through the burning bush. Stephen says that Moses led the Israelites for 40 years, though it was longer. He calls the visitation on Mt. Sinai that of an angel, though Exodus is clear that this is God Himself. Stephen recounts the Golden Calf, but then says that God turned against the Israelites by turning them over to the worship of heavenly bodies, a point that is not found in Exodus. Stephen quotes from Amos, but the quote is loose. The first line matches, but the second line mentioning Molech and Rephan is found only in the Septuagint, and in the third line Stephen says the exile is “beyond Babylon,” while Amos says it is “beyond Damascus.”  Stephen then finishes the account by focusing on the Ark of the Covenant, Solomon’s building of the Temple, and a repudiation of the Temple as the dwelling place of God based on Isaiah 66:1-2.

Clearly there are major differences between the Jewish scriptures that Stephen knew and the scriptures that are accepted today. Some of the differences are due to the currency of the Septuagint Bible, which is widely regarded as flawed and which has been replaced by more modern translations. But some variations could be due to oral traditions.

As for Stephen’s experience of God, it is more direct than any other character in the Bible, except perhaps Moses. He is not only filled with the Holy Spirit, but he actually sees God (and Jesus) in Heaven. He is so intoxicated with the experience of the divine that he does not feel pain, fear, or anger from being stoned. Instead, he is able to forgive his enemies even as they are killing him. And he does not die, but rather falls asleep. 

Saul’s role in the stoning of Stephen is presented as relatively benign. We are not told that he casts a stone or orders any stone to be cast. But what does it mean that those who are stoning Stephen lay their clothes at his feet? And was he a member of the Sanhedrin?  It seems unlikely that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, since they were elders, some perhaps drawn from the high priest’s clan and they would have been expected to be men of learning, probably not associated with a trade of questionable purity like tentmaking. As for the laying of clothes at Saul’s feet, it certainly meant that he was trustworthy and of too high a station to participate in the stoning directly.
 
Notes

1. The nature of the Sanhedrin is described in the Catholic Encyclopedia
2. Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and Asia
3. Acts 7: 51 “Uncircumcised in heart and ears” echoes Jeremiah 4:4
4. No judgment is issued by the religious court, so stoning cannot be an acceptable punishment. 
5. This is the first instance of dying being termed “falling asleep” (other instances occur in 1 Cor, 1 Th, and 2 Peter).  This portrayal of death is not typical of other Jewish scripture.  In the gospels, falling asleep is associated with inattention or sloth, as when the disciples fall asleep at Gethsemane.
6. The irony of Stephen, an ordinary man, lecturing the religious leaders of Jerusalem on theology is very rich. If there is any point to God’s expenditure of one of His early workers on scolding the Sanhedrin, it may be in illustrating that Truth is freely available through the Holy Spirit. The licensure of holiness through the Temple and the religious bureaucracy is completely void of meaning.

Acts 6

Posted October 11, 2008 by Charles II
Categories: Uncategorized

The first real division among the followers of Jesus occurs between the Greeks and the Hebrews and it occurs over the feeding of widows. The disciples delegate to seven men the task of caring for the widows (Stephen, Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas [1]), laying hands [2] on them in their commissioning. The proximate effect of the delegation is that the disciples multiply and “a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.”  The former reminds one of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, in which division leads to multiplication. The latter suggests that the more who are willing to serve, the more leaders appear.   

The delegation to the seven represents a division of preaching from service to the poor, with preaching given a higher status than deaconship. However, despite his status as a lowly server of widows, Stephen also “did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.”

Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and Asia [3] called the Synagogue of the Libertines (Freedmen) tried to debate Stephen but “they could not stand up against his wisdom [4] or the Spirit by whom he spoke,” so they accused Stephen of blaspheming Moses [5] and God, and produced false witnesses to testify that he said that Jesus will destroy “this place”[6] and change the customs handed down from Moses [7]. The Sanhedrin saw that Stephen’s face looked like that of an angel.

Notes.
1. The names Stephen, Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas are Greek. Since the complaint was that Greeks were being neglected, this suggests that Greeks were given control of the distribution of food as a means of guaranteeing that this complaint would be resolved. Stephen is was martyred in Acts 7, and Philip evangelized the eunuch in Acts 8. Of the others, we know little. The names have these meanings:
Stephen: crowned (since Stephen suffers the fate of Jesus, he is in a sense the king of the deacons)
Philip: lover of horses (notice that he approaches the eunuch in a chariot in Acts 8 )
Procurus: leader of the chorus
Nicanor: conqueror
Timon: honorable; this is also the name of a Skeptic philosopher
Parmenas: constant
Nicolas: conqueror of the people
2. The laying on of hands carries many meanings. It is most commonly associated with healing. However, in the Old Testament, it is the means by which the priest transfers the nation’s sins to a sacrificial animal as well as the means by which a father’s blessing is passed to his sons. 
3. Stephen’s opponents are Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and Asia, from the Synagogue of Freedmen (or, in the KJV, Libertines). These would have been foreigners and outsiders. However, the Blue Letter Bible proposes that “Libertines” carries the sense of being blessed.  It notes that there are many interpretations of who may have freed these people. 
4. Notice that it is not only the Spirit that gives Stephen’s arguments force, but also his own wisdom.
5. This is an interesting charge. Blasphemy in the present day is generally understood to be a denunciation of God, not of a man.
6. Presumably the Temple.
7. It’s unclear why changing customs would be a religious issue. The Greek word for “customs” is “ethos”

Acts 5

Posted August 16, 2008 by Charles II
Categories: Uncategorized

Ananias [1] and Sapphira attempt to defraud the church by telling them they are handing over all the money from the sale of a piece of land while withholding some. Peter confronts them with their misdeed. They die, stricken down by the Lord[2].

The apostles and the believers gathered under Solomon’s Colonnade [3] and performed miracles of healing and exorcism. Non-believers, even those who respected the apostles, would not join them. But even having Peter’s shadow fall on the afflicted as he passed by was believed to help.

The high priest and his associates, Sadducees all, become jealous and jail the apostles. An angel releases the apostles at night and tells them to preach “the full message of this new life” in the temple courts. When the high priest and the Sanhedrin call for the apostles to be called forth, the jail is empty. The captain of the guard and his officers find and escort the apostles to the assembly of Caiphas and the Sanhedrin, but are careful not to use force, since they are afraid the people would stone them [4].

The high priest complains that not only are the apostles teaching of Jesus, they are blaming the high priest and the Sanhedrin for Jesus’s death. Peter says he is compelled by God to teach that God raised Jesus from the dead and placed Him at His right hand as Prince and Savior to help Israel find repentance and to forgive the sins of Israel. Israel’s leaders are furious and want to kill the apostles, but the Pharisee Gamaliel gives them very wise counsel: “Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

So, the leaders of Israel order the apostles to be flogged. Everyone leaves happy, the apostles for having the opportunity to be abused for Jesus’s Name. And they don’t stop preaching.

  Notes

1.  There are three Ananiases in Acts. The second is known as Ananias of Damascus. In Acts 9 (and 22), he lays hands on the blind Saul of Tarsus (later known as St. Paul) and Saul’s sight is restored.   The third is the high priest of Acts 23, who had his men ready to smite Paul. 
2.  It’s significant that the only supernatural death recorded in the epistles is inflicted on people who refuse to share. However, what made the sin mortal was the lie they conspired in, rather than the selfishness. Jesus warned that the one sin that God would not forgive was blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:29). The Holy Spirit is to be understood as the principle that leads people to truth, and is referred to as the Spirit of Truth in John 14-16. See Higgs.  
3.  As was mentioned earlier, Solomon’s Colonnade was a place of kingly judgment dating back to the First Temple. 
4.  Stoning was the punishment for only a handful of capital sins, notably blasphemy.

Acts 4

Posted June 7, 2008 by Charles II
Categories: Uncategorized

In the middle of the sermon that Peter and John were preaching, the Establishment (in the form of priests, Sadducees, and the captain of the Temple guard [1]) seized and jailed the two apostles for teaching independently of the priests. especially regarding the resurrection of the dead as evidenced in Jesus. But at least two thousand men were converted [2].

The next day, the rulers, elders and teachers of the Law, led by high priest Annas and comprising the Sanhedrin [3], conducted an investigation. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter answered them that the healing of the cripple was done by the name of Jesus. Quoting Psalm 118:22, Peter declares that Jesus is the capstone, the sole means of salvation. Dismissing Peter, John, and the former cripple from the Sanhedrin, the leaders of Israel decided that the best they can do is to threaten Peter and John to be silent to try to keep “this thing from spreading further.” Peter and John rejected the command to remain silent. The Sanhedrin, however, were unable to decide how to punish them, since people were praising God for such an extraordinary miracle– the cripple was over 40, after all.

Peter and John went back and reported to the followers of Jesus what had happened, and quoted Psalm 2:1-2 (“Why do the heathen rage… against the Lord and His Anointed One?”) They blamed Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles, and the people of Israel for conspiring against Jesus who, they said, God had anointed. They asked God to enable them to speak boldly and to perform healing and miraculous signs. There was an earthquake, and the followers of Jesus were filled with the Holy Spirit.

The community was marked by solidarity and by strong testimony: “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them.” People who owned land and houses, such as Barnabas (also known as Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus), sold those properties and provided the apostles with money [4], which was distributed to the needy.
_____________________
Notes

1. The opponents of Peter and John were the priests, the captain of the Temple Guard, and the Sadducees. Matthew Henry thinks that the captain of the Temple Guard would have been a Roman, but this seems doubtful, since the Romans weren’t allowed in the Temple. The Sadducees were named after Sadoc, the high priest in the times of David and Solomon and were hellenizers, aligned with the ruling elite.
2. The math gets a little hard to follow. In Acts 1, there are 120 believers of both genders. In Acts 2, three thousand (gender unspecified) are converted. In Acts 4, the number of male believers increases to 5,000, but since we don’t know how many of the 3,100 are men, we can only be certain that at least 1,900 men were converted in Acts 4.
3. Matthew Henry points out that the Sanhedrin met the day after the arrest, unlike the trial of Jesus, in which he was tried the same night as His arrest.
4. The sale of lands and houses were very extreme steps, implying a breakup of communities and perhaps even families. Matthew Henry presents an argument that it was the time of the Jubilee, meaning that land could not be reclaimed for 50 years, but the argument is based on dubious numerology. Perhaps people may have been convinced that the End of Day was upon them. J.W. Carter draws attention to the point that Barnabas was a Levite, the one tribe that had not been allotted land in Old Testament days. (Carter uses that to argue that Barnabas was therefore not obligated to donate the land to the church, but the conclusion does not seem to follow). Perhaps the early church would have found that particularly satisfying, since the Levites were not supposed to own land, so a Levite sacrificing his land would seem to be a removal of a historical corruption.
Certainly the feature of sharing as a fundamental mark of Christians is noteworthy. Christians claim to be members of the same body, the body of Christ. If there is not a smooth sharing of necessities in that community, the claim of following Christ is probably not true.

Acts 3

Posted May 17, 2008 by Charles II
Categories: Uncategorized

Peter and John were going to temple at the ninth hour (3PM)[1] at the time of prayer. A man crippled from birth[2] was being carried to the Beautiful Gate [3] to beg. He asked Peter and John for money. Peter and John looked straight at the beggar and told him to look at them. Then Peter said that he had no gold or silver[4], but he would give what he had and he commanded the beggar to walk. He lifted the beggar by his right hand [5]. The beggar not only walked, but jumped and praised God.

People came running to Solomon’s Colonnade and were awed. Reciting the history of the crucifixion, Peter laid the blame on the ignorance of the Jews. He calls them to repent so that the times of refreshing may come. He says Jesus will remain in Heaven until the time for things to be restored. He quotes Deuteronomy 18: 15,18-19 to warn that those who do not listen to the prophet that God sends will be “cut off from among” (extirpated from) his people. He quotes Genesis 22: 18, 26:4 to say that Jesus has been sent to bless the Jews by leading them to repentance, and that they would bless the world.
___________
Notes:
1.  The ninth hour was the hour of day when Jesus died, according to John 23:44. 
2.  The phrase “crippled from birth” reminds us of the man in John 9, who was blind from birth, as well as the man healed by Paul in Acts 14, who was crippled in his feet and therefore lame from birth. Since the man was crippled, he was prevented from entering the Temple.
3.  Strelan argues that the “Beautiful Gate” is not the Nicanor Gate nor the Gate of Susa, but that it should be rendered as “The Ripe Gate”to indicate that it was the gate through which ripe produce came during festivals such as Tabernacles. This could explain that healing the man from lameness restored his connection with the Temple.
A photo of The Beautiful Gate, widened in the post-Christian era is here
4. Strelan remarks that if these events occurred during the Feast of the Tabernacles, a donation of two pieces of silver would have been expected from Peter. Occam’s Razor would suggest that Strelan’s hypothesis is incorrect, but his counterargument is worth a read.
A question is why Peter says that he has no silver or gold. Did he perhaps have copper coins with him? 
5. The miracle did not occur just by command, but by lifting. What was the role of eye contact in the miracle?  
6. A photo of Solomon’s Colonnade (or Porch) is available here
Jesus walked there (John 10:23) and this location became popular for the early church such that in Acts 5:12, it became a gathering point. In 1 Chron. 18, David supplies the plan for the Porch to Solomon. In 1 Kings 7, Solomon’s Porch is associated with kingly judgment and in 2 Chron. 8, it’s mentioned as being adjacent to the altar where Solomon offered sacrifices. While the Herodian Temple was different than the First Temple, presumably the historical connotations for specific
locations remained the same.
7. Peter’s version of the crucifixion asserts that Pilate had decided to let Jesus go, calls Jesus “the author of life,” and says that the ignorance of the Jews and their leaders was to blame.
8.  The Greek for “refresh” is anapsyxis, literally perhaps “mind rising.”  This occurs only once in the New Testament.
7.  The Greek for “cut off from” or “extirpated” is exolethreuo. This occurs only once in the New Testament.

Acts 2

Posted April 3, 2008 by Charles II
Categories: Uncategorized

The 120, including the Jesus’s disciples and “the women” were in “one place,” probably the Upper Room, and they were “of one accord” (Gr. homothumadon).  A violent wind sound came from heaven and filled the room and tongues of flame came and rested on each one. They began speaking of God’s mighty works… in languages other than their own.

The scene then shifts to a public place, where pilgrims hear the speakers. Some people hear the speakers in their own native language, even though the speakers had never spoken that language. Other people thought the speakers were drunk and therefore presumably were hearing something other than those who understood. 

Peter answers their perplexity by interpreting these events as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel, that the Holy Spirit would be poured onto everyone and that they would dream dreams, see visions, and prophesy. God would show them wonders in heaven and on earth, with the sun darkened and the moon turned to blood. Most important, everyone who called on the Lord would be saved. Peter claims that this prophecy referred to the coming of Jesus, and quotes from Psalms 16 and 110 to identify Jesus with the child of David who God had promised David would rule forever. 

Finally, Peter shames the listeners by telling them they have crucified the Messiah and urges them to repent and be baptized. He says that the promise of redemption is not only for them and their children, but also for those who are “far off.” Three thousand people follow Peter’s call. They were notable because they shared everything according to need, and marked it by the fellowship of breaking bread and praying. This chapter underlines that they sincerely took joy in eating. And so the congregation grew.
Notes
1.  The opening image is of oneness. The people are together, unified in purpose, and the room becomes filled with sound. The unity is then intensified by the Holy Spirit, which enters each of them and erases the barrier of language that God created in Genesis 11. This then transforms in an unexplained manner to a duality, in which some people understand what is being said, and others imagine that the speakers are drunk.
2.It is unclear what differentiated those who mocked the speakers from those who saw it as miraculous. But those who heard, heard of God’s mighty deeds. One interpretation is that the speakers are not speaking any human tongue, but the language of Heaven, the universal language that existed before Babel divided humankind. The hearers either understand the language of Heaven, which sounds like their native tongue, or they do not, in which case it sounds like drunken babbling.
3. Peter says that “God made this Jesus…both Lord and Christ.” This seems to conflict in some degree with the general doctrine of the Trinity, which holds that the three persons of the Trinity are equal.
4. In John 20:22, the Holy Spirit comes only to the disciples, but in Acts to many.
5.  Pentecost means 50 days after the Feast of Unleavened Bread and Passover
6.  In 1 Cor. 14:1-33, the tongues must be interpreted. Here, some people understand and some people don’t.
7.  The version of Joel’s prophecy in Acts does not match the Septuagint. “In the last days” replaces “afterwards,” “they shall prophesy” is added, and “above” has been added to “heavens,” “below” to “earth” and “signs” See Chris Haslam’s commentary.