Acts: Outlines and Commentary
By Derek Leman
© 2017 Derek Leman
Table of Contents
The first account (1-3), Yeshua’s post-resurrection instructions (4-5), from knowing the time to doing the work (6-8).
The opening scene of Acts is a repeat and summary of what had already happened, and not a new set of events (Luke Johnson, Sacra Pagina Commentary). In the manner of a Greek historian, Luke opens his second volume (Acts) with a summary of his first one (the Gospel of Luke). Johnson details some similarities between Luke’s style and that of another Greek writer, Lucian of Samosata. The Gospel, says Luke, was about Yeshua’s teaching, choosing of disciples, his death, resurrection appearances, eating with the disciples, commissioning the disciples, and the promise of the Spirit. But when Luke comes to the ascent of Yeshua into the heavens to the right hand of God, he no longer summarizes but gives a new version of that story. Vss. 9-11 retell from a different point of view the ascension story that had already been the subject of the ending of the Gospel (Luke 24:50-53). What is new here in the Acts retelling is the way the kingdom is explained. The disciples want to know the time of its coming. Yeshua says it is not for them to know. Rather, they should go out as witnesses of the gospel (“gospel” means the story of Yeshua’s coming and what he did and said). Johnson comments that in the larger theology of Acts, Yeshua is not replacing the election of Israel as the people of God. He is, rather, calling for a redefined Israel, a remnant within Israel, led by the disciples, who will believe in Messiah and spread their message to the nations. Theophilus is an unknown person, though many theories have been suggested, including a high priest of the line of Caiphas.
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Yeshua lifted into the clouds (9), the appearance and words of two heavenly messengers (10-11).
The ascension of Yeshua from the Mount of Olives is said to involve a cloud taking Yeshua up, which is to say that cloud acts as a sort of chariot (Johnson). This is similar language to Revelation 11:12 where the two witnesses are taken up and to 2 Enoch 3:1 and also Josephus’s description of the death and assumption of Moses. The two men in white clothing could be angelic beings or Moses and Elijah who were present at the transfiguration. The return of Yeshua, which the movement in Luke’s day was very much anticipating, would be a coming back down with the clouds, an ascension in reverse, much like the description in Daniel 7:1 (except the Son of Man comes to earth and not to the throne of God).
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The Eleven return to the upper room (12-13), the Eleven and the women and Yeshua’s family were in frequent prayer (14), Peter addresses the 120 (15-17), a note about Judas Iscariot’s death (18-19), Peter cites Psalms as precedent (20-21), qualification for Judas’ replacement (22-23), choosing Matthias by prayer and lots (24-26).
All eleven of the remaining disciple group remain and the same upper room in Jerusalem where they had the Last Supper with Yeshua becomes a gathering place in the wake of Yeshua’s departure. They are waiting in Jerusalem as Yeshua had commanded (Luke 24:49), praying as they wait. How do we imagine their prayer practices? The culture of prayer in their day involved reciting Psalms and traditional prayers that leaders in the community memorized. The groupings in those first days included the eleven, the women who had especially attended Yeshua’s execution, burial, and entombment, and a larger group comprising one hundred and twenty souls. In order to replace Judas among the Twelve, they are looking for someone who was with the disciple group from the beginning. Originally the Twelve were seen as the founders of the community and their number symbolized the tribal arrangement of Israel. But there is a disconnect for modern readers and the Twelve seem less important now, largely because no one wrote a history of what happened to them. Other than Peter, we do not have early material about them (although there are stories told by the church fathers, often with doubtful material). Yeshua had set up the Twelve as the judges of renewed Israel and even said they were destined to rule the tribes (Luke 22:29-30). The Yeshua-movement within Israel was seen as a renewing from within Israel with the authority of the Son of David (David being expected to return in messianic times). In Luke’s account there is a also an inspiring theme about property. Judas left his “place” (his appointment among the Twelve) and instead bought a field (a different kind of place) with his money, in order to betray the Lord. By contrast, the Yeshua-movement (see 2:42-47) will be about people using their property (their place) and possessions to help one another (Johnson). The movement for Yeshua continues, with the Twelve as its leaders, awaiting the gift of the Spirit and praying. This is a constant in Jewish life, praying and waiting.
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On Shavuot (Pentecost) the signs of theophany occur and the Spirit is given (1-4), diaspora Jews gathered for Shavuot hear their languages mixed into the strange speech (5-6), those from even the “ends of the earth” hear and there is controversy (7-13).
The appearance of wind and fire at this event was a divine reminder of the storm and fire on Mount Sinai when the Torah was given to Israel in Exodus 19. The Septuagint (LXX) for Exodus 19:16 speaks of fire descending upon the mountain (rather like the “tongues” of fire on the early believers). Evidence that Shavuot was regarded as the day of the giving of the Ten Commandments can be found in Jubilees 6:17-21 (Johnson). Note that Shavuot is the Hebrew term and Pentecost is the Greek name for the same holiday (50 days after first fruits were offered up during Passover week). The actual account of the giving of the Spirit is brief and provides for us few of the details we would like to grasp. This account emphasizes the effect of the Spirit’s coming rather than asking why and how. Yeshua’s followers engage in miraculous and ecstatic speech. In the Greco-Roman world such speech was known as a form of powerful prophecy. Yet in this case, witnesses from all over the empire heard not unintelligible speech, but examples of their own languages. Yeshua had just commanded that the good news be proclaimed to the ends of the earth and here at this event in Jerusalem the very ends of the earth happen to be present. So this is an example of a command of God being fulfilled suddenly and in unexpected ways. The list of places is intended to show that as soon as Yeshua’s presence is revealed, the work of saving commences. The Yeshua movement, meanwhile, is endorsed by God through this miraculous sign. Even so, unbelief rejects miraculous signs. Therefore the miracle of ecstatic speech is at once misunderstood by some and yet effective for others. This is a pattern: God’s coming, whether hidden or in the open, reaches those who are open to the experience.
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Explanation of the ecstatic speech (14-16), citation from Joel (17-21), explanation of the death, resurrection, and identity of Yeshua (22-24).
The miracle of speech from 2:1-4 would appear to those who overheard it to be gibberish except for those who understood the languages being spoken. Peter dispels the idea that this was drunkenness with a cultural argument (“only the third hour”). The citation from Joel 3:1-5(2:28-32) from the Septuagint (LXX) version with a few minor changes indicates that this ecstatic speech was a sign of the messianic age. For Peter’s way of thinking, such a sign need not happen only once in history, so it is not that Peter naively thought the end of the age had arrived. It was a sign of prophecy coming from a wide spectrum of people that should catch the attention of the crowd. The giving of prophetic speech to so many in a public setting is almost unprecedented, with the closest parallel being the seventy elders in Numbers 11. After explaining the ecstatic speech, which is misunderstood by observers not in the know, he explains the death of Yeshua to those not in the know. Just as the speech may have appeared to be drunkenness, the death of Yeshua appeared to be a simple execution of a criminal. Peter’s explanation bridges the mystery of human causation (“you crucified”) and divine causation (“delivered up by the set plan and foreknowledge of God”). He emphasizes the signs from Yeshua’s life as a reason to believe, signs which his audience knew about.
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Yeshua as the one saved from Sheol (25-28), the promise goes beyond David (29-31), Yeshua ascended to the heavenly throne (32-33), Yeshua as David’s Lord (34-35), Yeshua as Israel’s Lord and Messiah (36).
The quotation is from Psalm 16:8-11 as translated by the Septuagint (LXX, the reference in the Septuagint is Psalm 15:8-11) and it is exact (Johnson). The plain meaning of the text is about David’s suffering. Peter is using a way of thinking about texts (similar to rabbinic methods in the literature known as midrash) that is difficult for some moderns to appreciate. Certain gaps or ambiguities in ancient texts opened the possibility of multiple meanings. How can David speak of not being brought to the grave (Sheol) when eventually even David would die? Peter suggests this is a hint that God had in mind something more spectacular than a recovery from illness. The ultimate meaning of David’s words can be found in resurrection, a return to life that never ends. Peter then uses an argument from Psalm 110, one that Yeshua himself had used (Mark 12:35-37), in which David refers to someone else as his Lord. This is more than a hint that David is thinking of someone who is greater than just one of his descendants. He is thinking of someone who is both his descendant and his Lord, the Messiah. Yeshua’s kingship is greater than David’s as it is from the throne next to God’s right hand. Yeshua’s resurrection and ascension have led to the giving of the Spirit which Peter’s audience has witnessed. He calls on his hearers to realize the identity and authority of Yeshua and all that they entail. Peter’s audience has witnessed a sign, the Sinai-like wind and fire, the prophetic speech of the disciples, and Peter’s speech gives it all meaning. Messiah has come and signs of the messianic age are appearing.
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Peter’s audience submits to the message (37-40), three thousand join the movement (41), summary of the character of this community (42), signs and wonders (43), sharing lives and possessions (44-45), worship in the Temple and dining together in homes (46), devoted to God and respectable to outsiders (47).
Luke does not emphasize Israel as rejecting Yeshua but shows the segment within Israel open to the work of God revealed through Yeshua. In Luke 23:48, many witnesses of Yeshua’s death go home beating their breasts (Johnson). Here in Acts 2:37 those who hear Peter’s message are stunned. Later, in Acts 21:20 we will hear of the tens of thousands (muriades, mistakenly translated as thousands in many English versions) of Jewish believers. The impact of Yeshua on Jerusalem is not small. The subgroup within Judaism who choose to follow Yeshua is a minority, but it is a large minority, a significant movement. Meanwhile, Luke sums up the doings of this community first in vs. 42 and then with more detail in vss. 43-47. They engage in signs and wonders, like Yeshua had done before them. They have koinonia (family-like fellowship). They share possessions. They continue to live as Jews in public places like the Temple. Yet they also have separate meetings. They are new sect of Jews, not a new religious group or the first “Christians.” They “break bread,” which means eating together, but also it means carrying on the tradition of Yeshua who used bread and the Jewish blessing over it as a way to elevate his hearers for a time of teaching and prayer. It is important to Luke to note that they were well regarded in the community. Although this would not always be the case in later times, it means that they saw themselves as part of the larger Jewish community. This Jerusalem congregation, which included Jews from the diaspora who had made pilgrimage and would return, was the mother congregation. They were the restored and renewed remnant of Israel which Yeshua said he would build and put under the charge of his disciples. Luke’s intention in presenting a positive image of the gospel among the Jewish people is to say that what Yeshua started should continue (both the Messianic Jewish movement described here and the multinational congregation which will arise later in the story of Acts). The character of the Jerusalem congregation (learning together, community, sharing resources) is the way people worked out Yeshua’s teaching practically and it is a model for us today. It is a model often praised but difficult to put into practice. The usual human ways of death prevent us from forming real community. What are those ways of death? The lust to acquire power, the siren call of greed, the grasping spirit of being wrapped up in oneself — these inevitably ruin our gatherings and associations. Still the model of the freshly minted movement, filled with power and enthusiasm calls to us. We long for it. And sometimes, in some places, for a short while, we can achieve it. In the coming age, it will be the new normal.
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Apostles going to pray at the Temple (1), encounter with a beggar (2-5), not silver and gold, but healing (6-8), the reaction of wonder at the incident (9-10).
The ninth hour is about three in the afternoon (the time reference is from a sundial where the sixth hour is always noon and the twelfth hour is sunset). We have just read that the disciple community is experiencing signs and wonders and this story is an example (Johnson). They go to pray at the Temple, they do signs and wonders, there is awe and wonder, they are well received by the people, and Peter will go on to teach in vss. 11-26. The apostles are doing as Yeshua had done (see Luke 5:17-26, Johnson). There may be another element here as well. The lame man would be barred from the priesthood (Lev 21:16-18) but after being restored is leaping and worshipping in the Temple, rather like a Levite (Johnson). We cannot today identify the Beautiful Gate, unfortunately. Miracles in the times of the Bible, contrary to some religious teaching, were exceedingly rare, as they are today. The people were in awe and their amazement reinforced the truth that Messiah had begun the age of redemption.
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A crowd gathers at the Temple (11), Peter says God has exalted the one his people condemned (12-15), faith in Yeshua heals (16), the guilt of the people in condemning Yeshua was in the foreknowledge of God (17-18), yet it is also announced that the people of Israel are to receive the blessings of renewal through the messianic redemption (19-26).
The theology of this speech is crucially important and too little followed in the days since Yeshua’s death. The basic points are as follows: (1) Yeshua has been exalted to the place announced in the prophets for the ultimate healer of Israel and the nations, (2) Peter’s generation did not recognize and condemned the rightful king, (3) this was all in the foreknowledge of God and the betrayal was necessary, (4) a period of renewal will come on Israel and the world for the community which repents and follows Yeshua, (5) this renewal is the blessing of Abraham which flows from Israel to the nations, and (6) Yeshua’s sacrifice was first and foremost for the people of Israel. This is how Peter explains the gospel to his own people. Peter’s generation, yet not Jewish people in general, were guilty of disowning Yeshua. Though it is likely that none who heard Peter’s words in this speech were the same people who had earlier said of Yeshua, “Crucify him!” Peter rightly says his generation is guilty for allowing such a travesty to happen. Even now, Peter says, a “time of refreshing” could come, the onset of the kingdom in full form. If Peter’s generation would all as one arise and follow Messiah, he would come. We may say that this is the firm belief of the apostles: that when Israel receives Yeshua the Righteous One, the days of Messiah will arrive.
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Peter and John arrested (1-3), 5,000 believe (4), the council questions them (5-7), Peter’s speech (8-12), the perplexed judges (13-15), decision to order silence (16-18), Peter denounces their judgment (19-20), Peter and John freed to a rejoicing community (21-22).
Johnson says that Acts is developing the theme of Israel’s true leadership, the apostles as the leaders of the remnant within Israel that follows Messiah Yeshua. In keeping with this theme, the Sanhedrin is powerless against the apostles in this story. They cannot punish them because the people have all seen the signs they performed. Peter instead preaches to the council! They come up with a weak judgment, to order them to silence. Peter refuses the order of the council and still he and John are let go. In every sense, the apostles thwart the power of the Sanhedrin and have the favor of the people. This position of the apostles is, of course, temporary, but Luke shows us a foretaste of the coming age when Israel will be governed by Yeshua and the apostles will sit on thrones (Luke 22:30). The chapter contains a number of interesting sayings. Vs. 2 could be translated either in or through Yeshua, so that they were saying the resurrection of the dead is in Yeshua or through him. This could mean that the foretaste of the resurrection has happened in Yeshua, so that Peter can point to the event of Yeshua’s raising as a sign to help his generation believe. Or he may mean more: that the only way to know we are included in the coming resurrection is if we locate ourselves in Yeshua. In vs. 10 he says the lame beggar was healed “in the name of Yeshua,” indicating that power to see miracles happens because of Yeshua’s coming and his authority given to the apostles as his agents. Finally, in vs. 12 he says salvation can be found in no one else. What is meant here by “salvation”? Some Christian traditions assume the word always means inclusion in the blessed afterlife. This is rarely if ever the meaning in the Bible. In Peter’s time the nation of Israel needs to be saved from its present course, headed for a collision with Rome, in which many people will die. The nation needs to find its salvation in the resurrected, ascended Messiah. Calling upon him as a nation would bring rescue to Israel, ushering in and era Peter has elsewhere called a “time of refreshing” (Acts 3:20). In other words, the Messianic era can come down to earth, bringing peace and plenty to everyone. Compare this reading of Peter’s words with the more common individualistic salvation message: “if you will personally believe in Yeshua God will not punish you in the afterlife.” The individualized afterlife message, with its notion that God is waiting for each person to pass a test, fails to explain the long history of the word salvation as national deliverance and does not match well the plural nature of the words Peter has been using (“This Yeshua is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders”). He is calling on the collective nation to welcome Yeshua, not just individuals.
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Report to the community (23), prayer of messianic indignation (24-28), prayer of Spirit empowerment (29-30), earthquake and Spirit endowment (31), the power and common possessions shared in the community (32-35), Barnabas donates the proceeds of a field (36-37).
The prayer of the Yeshua community is filled with power. They begin with praise from Psalm 146:6, acknowledging God as the all-powerful Creator with dominion over everything. They apply Psalm 2, a Davidic psalm with messianic implications, to their specific situation: as rulers seek to interfere with Messiah’s business. Ironically it is the leadership of Israel that is fulfilling the role of the nations as adversaries to God’s Messiah! The believers are as Israel in this application of Psalm 2 and the Jewish leaders are as the gentiles! They specifically mention Herod (arguably a gentile) and Pilate as examples of actual gentile persecution. Then their prayer calls upon God to act, based on his promises to the Messiah. On this basis they request divine aid in speaking the message and showing signs and wonders. God grants Spirit empowerment (a prophetic endowment) and immediately sends an earthquake (literal) as a sign of his favor. He sends the gift of prophetic speech after this prayer. Luke summarizes again the remarkable common life of these believers and the sale of a piece of property for the common good by Barnabas sets an example which many will follow. In the aftermath of reading this text in Acts, we have to ask some important questions about applying it today. God sent an earthquake to show his favor toward the early believers. The leaders of Judea are evidently outside of God’s favor. There is an expectation in many religious communities that we will experience similar miracles today to those which occurred in Acts. But will we? The way Luke describes miracles such as this earthquake, they were immediate and evident. People saw tongues of fire in Acts 2. A person disabled from birth could walk again in Acts 3. People who sinned in certain ways might on some occasions die suddenly in Acts 5. Yet it seems in modern movements claiming to bring back the miraculous powers from the days of the apostles, we are being sold imitation goods. No one is growing back withered hands and atrophied legs. Earthquakes and Roman invasions are not coming down on the heads of corrupt governments. Praying believers are not shaking the earth. Neither did these things happen in most of the Bible. We do not continue hearing stories after the early days of the Yeshua community about spectacular miracles. They seem to cluster around key occasions in salvation history: the Exodus, the Conquest, the coming of Messiah, the days immediately following Messiah’s ascension. Their purpose seems to be to confirm revelation. They are not the norm. Numerous sayings of Yeshua and texts from the Bible, Hebrew Bible and New Testament, speak of a long time of delay, of enduring, of believing without seeing. Our expectations should not be set by the exceptions, the earthquakes in Acts. They should be set by the larger picture of the Bible about how God’s hidden power is at work in unseen ways.
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Ananias and Sapphira collude to deceive the apostles (1-2), Peter confronts Ananias who dies and is buried (3-6), an unknowing Sapphira repeats the lie (7-8), Peter confronts Sapphira and she dies (9-10), the whole community reverences God’s name (11).
The apostles are the leaders of the tribes of Israel (Luke 22:30), and in the early movement there are signs from heaven of this change in authority on earth. According to the story, Ananias and Sapphira were under no obligation to sell the property or to donate any or all of the proceeds having sold it. Their offense was pretending to do a good deed, apparently to receive the praise of people and perhaps even with the thought that they could receive a reward from God. Perhaps they thought even God could be deceived. That God takes good deeds so seriously is shown by the punishment of Ananias and Sapphira. Participation in the righteousness of the community is a holy thing. They damaged the “one mind and spirit” of the community by their deception (Johnson). This aspect of corporate responsibility, reward, and judgment is missing in much thinking about congregational life today (due to our strong individualistic bent). Those who listen to the prophet (Yeshua, whose authority comes through his apostles) are blessed, but those who do not heed are cut off, just as Peter had said in 3:19-23 (Johnson).
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Signs and wonders (12), favor with the people (13), growth of the community (14), healings in the Temple precincts (15-16), apostles arrested (17-18), an angel frees them and commissions them (19-20), the leaders find their cells empty and seek them (21-26), the apostles answer with the person and identity of Yeshua (27-32).
The earliest days were times of signs and wonders in Jerusalem. The times when God sends great miracles are in his keeping and we cannot manufacture them. Yet the other aspect of the earliest community, gathering in one accord, is a vision we can aspire to. Perhaps it was the simplicity of purpose that helped the first community have such unity. There was little concern about anything except the greatness of the truth about Yeshua (life-giver, first-resurrected, king and high priest, coming redeemer of all things). It was difficult for outsiders to scorn such a movement and so they had favor with the people. Even those who did not believe Yeshua’s claims were moved by the dedication and power of these Yeshua-disciples. The leaders in Judea with vested power at stake opposed them. The apostles answered their captors with a startling claim: Yeshua has been raised to the hand of power as Prince and Priest. It is Yeshua who will bring Israel to revival. We are witnesses passing this on to others. In our time we need to recapture faith in the reign of Yeshua, to serve him as King and have confidence in him as Priest. We see in this a perfect example of believing in who we are in Messiah, not taking the word of others about ourselves.
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The Sanhedrin enraged to the point of killing (33), Gamaliel’s advice (34-39), the apostles receive 39 lashes and rejoice (40-42).
Theudas and Judas the Galilean are also known from other accounts, especially Josephus. Either Josephus or Luke is wrong about the timing of Theudas’ career, since Josephus has it around 45 CE, which would be after the events described in Acts 5. Johnson argues that this story has given people overly romantic notions of Gamaliel. If he was part of the Pharisaic minority on the Sanhedrin, and if the full Sanhedrin was involved in Yeshua’s trial, then Gamaliel is one who had condemned Yeshua. Luke presents the evidence of the power of God working through the apostles as overwhelming, but Gamaliel is still a doubter along with the others, implying that he rejects the power of God when he sees it in favor of the status quo. Gamaliel’s advice is wise for a council uncertain if the populace will retaliate against them. It is not a pro-Yeshua counsel by any means. He wants the council to take no action since these movements usually die out on their own. Why be controversial when they can simply wait and not harm their image in the sight of the people? Luke uses Gamaliel’s speech ironically, however, because readers by his time know that Gamaliel was wrong: the Yeshua movement has grown exponentially and has not faded out. Unwittingly, Gamaliel’s reasoning has given evidence that the Yeshua movement “is from God” and opposition to it is “fighting God.”
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Problem between Hebrew-Aramaic speaking Jews and Greek speaking Jews (1), the apostles decide to appoint Greek speaking leaders (2-4), the names of the Seven (5), laying on hands (6), continued growth and favor of the movement (7).
Into the ideal community of Yeshua in the first generation we see at last the first evidence of human failure beyond an individual (Ananias and Sapphira). Even the Yeshua-community is subject to human faults and conflicts. Johnson argues that the term Hellenist in Luke can only mean a Greek speaking Jew. Hebrews means Hebrew-Aramaic speaking Jews. The dispute grows out of petty jealousy, some Hellenists feel the free distribution to widows is neglecting their own. The solution by the apostles is puzzling. Johnson recounts the problems with the solution as it is presented in the story. How will seven better serve to administer than twelve? How will the apostles be freed by this for more prayer? Who will administer to the Hebrews if the apostles abandon administration? Do these seven serve only the Hellenists (they all have Greek names)? In what sense have the apostles been hindered in their prayer and teaching when the account has praised the effects of their prayer and teaching repeatedly? Most importantly, how is it that nothing is said of these men administering, but only serving as prophets? Johnson notes that for Luke the role of physical provision for the community is prophetic and no prophet is worthy unless he is serving and healing the needs of the people. Many of the questions are unanswered by Luke’s account, but the bottom line is that authority in the early congregation spread from the Twelve to other groups from the diaspora. This is a step toward Samaria and the ends of the earth.
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A Hellenist synagogue opposes Stephen (9), confounded by his wisdom, they bring him up on false charges (10-12), Stephen accused of speaking against Temple and Torah (13-14), the Sanhedrin sees the face of an angel in Stephen (15).
That synagogues were named for national and linguistic groups in some cases is known from inscriptions in Jerusalem and elsewhere, such as Corinth (Johnson). As a Greek speaking Jew, Stephen encounters opposition from others like him. Stephen’s experience foreshadows the successes and troubles to come in the diaspora (Johnson). Stephen has fulfilled Yeshua’s prophecy, that irrefutable words will be given to those who speak in his name (Luke 21:15). It is ironic, from the position of later history, to read the false charge that Stephen taught that “Yeshua the Nazarene will destroy this place [Temple] and change the customs that Moses handed down to us.” What the Hellenistic Jews charge Stephen with in Acts 6 tragically became the faith of the church from the earliest days (as early as Justin Martyr). We should, rather, let the accusation against Stephen be a reminder that supersessionism (the church replaces Israel) is not the apostolic teaching. Stephen’s nearness to God in martyrdom is an inspiration to millions who have suffered for the Name.
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The chief priest requires an answer (1), Abraham and the land promise (1-7), circumcision, Isaac, and Jacob (8), Joseph and the land promise (9-16).
In the style of the time, long historical discourses served the purpose of showing how a present situation was consistent with history. Stephen is going to defend the movement of Yeshua as a continuation of God’s work through the history of Israel. The points in his speech will be subtle. Abraham is not “your father” but “our father.” Stephen is claiming that the Yeshua movement is a continuation, not a break with Jewish covenant (a point lost in church history). The prime mover in Stephen’s history is God (Johnson). Meaning and truth derive from the in-breaking of God into history, and not from people making history. Thus, the point is not whether the Yeshua movement is what the Jewish leaders think should be the next step in the covenant. It is what God has done, just as he acted in the past. Stephen will go on to present Yeshua as the prophet like Moses. Early signs of this thinking are evident in the way Joseph is presented as an innocent sufferer and a redeemer of his people (Johnson). Meanwhile, there are a number of points in Stephen’s (and Luke’s) presentation of the story that are puzzling. He says that the word came to Abraham in Babylon, before he reached Haran. But Genesis 11:31 – 12:4 gives no indication the word came to Abraham until he arrived in Haran. Stephen’s insistence on this point makes us wonder if he knew of some midrash about Abraham in Babylon.
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Moses, prefiguring Messiah, born at the time of promise (17), the suffering of Israel in Egypt (18-19), Moses, beautiful in God’s eyes, powerful in word and deeds (20-22), Moses as a misunderstood savior (23-25), Moses as the rejected savior (26-29).
Luke’s retelling of Israel’s history is subtly shaped to validate the person of Yeshua, the misunderstood and rejected savior. History is viewed as a series of times of God’s shaping. The birth of Moses was at a time when God was about to act, a time of promise. Luke has understood Yeshua’s birth this way as well (see Luke 1-2). Israel in Moses’ time suffers in Egypt just as in the days of the apostles Israel suffered under Rome. The idea that Moses was beautiful comes from Exodus 2:2, but Luke reinterprets the beauty as being in God’s sight. Moses was powerful in words, as Yeshua had been, and in signs, as Yeshua. But even Moses was misunderstood by the people in his first attempt at saving them when he slew the taskmaster. And Moses, like Yeshua, was rejected and driven out by the people. The message is that God’s acts of deliverance and God’s chosen prophets are not always recognized at first. These verses give us the key to understanding Stephen’s speech. What was Stephen saying? Was his speech that of a Hellenist Jew disrespecting the Temple? No, it was the speech of a Jew critical of the human failings of Israel, specifically that the nation was no better in Stephen’s time than in the time of Moses. The people could see what was good when it was offered to them. This is the tragic reality of being human, and certainly is not a trait unique to the Jewish people. Revelation from heaven calls upon people to open their eyes and see in a different way.
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God’s appearance to Moses (30-34), though Moses was a rejected savior, he was God’s savior (35), Moses worked signs and wonders (36), Moses said a prophet like him would rise up (37), yet Israel then, as now, did not live up to the revelation (38-41).
The heart of Stephen’s speech is a comparison. It is Moses and Yeshua, the founder of Torah and the revealer of the deepest divine mystery of all, who are like bookends in the progress of God revealing himself to humans. The comparison is also between the way Moses was received by his generation and the manner of reception Yeshua found in his own time. The blame that Stephen is projecting is clear: this crowd is doing what the crowd did in Moses’ day. They are rejecting the new revelation and insisting on living by old ideas. For the Israelites coming out of Egypt, it was polytheism. For the crown Stephen faces in Jerusalem, it is a sort of covenant privilege, a feeling of national power and pride in temple and Torah that overlook the need for change and growth. Stephen’s people have a history of not recognizing the saviors God sends. Moses was not only rejected but after many signs and wonders the people rebelled on multiple occasions. Yeshua has done signs and wonders also. The reaction of the people is sadly the same. Stephen implies that Moses’ words about a great prophet to come in Deuteronomy 18 has reference to Yeshua (the plain meaning in Deuteronomy is about the prophetic role in general, not a specific individual). Yeshua is the ultimate prophet in Moses’ message. The Golden Calf is happening again, only this time it is the covenant privilege that is the idol. But Stephen calls for any who will hear him to welcome the New Moses and be changed by his message.
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Israel’s wilderness worship tainted with idolatry (42-43), from the Tabernacle to David (44-45), Solomon’s Temple a paradox since God does not dwell in man-made houses (46-50), stubborn Israel which kills prophets, resists God, and breaks Torah (51-53).
Stephen cites Amos 5:25-27 from the Septuagint (LXX), a heart-rending charge by the prophet that in the wilderness many of the people were worshipping idols instead of God (worship that looks true can be false, directed to false deities). He then cites Isaiah 66:1-2, implying that God’s Presence could never be circumscribed by a Temple (only a limited aspect of God, his Name or Glory, was ever in the Temple; there is much more to God than the dwelling Glory in the Holy of Holies). Stephen’s point is that his generation is missing God while appearing to be faithful to him. By trusting in temple and national identity, the people are failing to be open to the new things God has done. As Johnson says, they are in danger of rejecting the Second Moses (Yeshua) just as they rejected the teaching of the first one. Stephen indicts the leaders of his generation and, as with Yeshua before him, his fate is sealed. Note that vs. 43 mentions Moloch and Rephan, whereas the Hebrew text of Amos 5:25-27 mentions Sakkut and Kaiwan. Stephen’s citation follows the LXX and not the Hebrew text, except that Stephen says “Babylon” and not “Damascus,” departing from both the LXX and the Hebrew text.
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The rage of the council (54), the Spirit-filled prophet sees the Son of Man by the throne (55-56), Stephen driven out and stoned (57-58), Stephen’s beatific visions and prayer of forgiveness for his enemies.
Luke emphasizes in his description how Stephen was filled with the Spirit during his stoning. Filling of the Spirit in Luke is empowerment and endorsement by God of prophets and of the new members of the Yeshua movement who received in many cases temporary prophetic manifestations. Here the fact of Stephen’s divine empowerment serves to underscore how the Jewish leaders, who were the false shepherds of that generation, were once again stoning a prophet. At a key time in history, the men of power in Israel once again failed to recognize God’s hand and to be humbled by it. Yeshua had said that these men would see him at God’s right hand and in some part it comes to pass here, as Stephen calls out what he sees. This is Psalm 110:1 being displayed and Yeshua’s identity again being revealed, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand.’” As Stephen is stoned he cries out just like Yeshua had on the cross, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (see Luke 23:34).
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Saul agrees and a persecution in Judea begins (1), pious men bury Stephen (2), Paul is arresting Yeshua-followers (3).
Johnson notes that it may be implied that Paul had instigated all the trouble against Stephen to begin with. He was from Cilicia, a place consonant with the Hellenistic Jews who attacked Stephen in 6:9. Later Paul will have to argue with these same Hellenistic Jews (9:29). The clothing placed at his feet is likely a recognition of his authority over the persecution. And here in 8:3 Paul is the leader of the persecution. Stephen, who died with many parallels to Yeshua, is buried with reverence as Yeshua had been. The description of dragging out Yeshua-followers suggests brutality (Johnson). The scattering of the Hellenistic leaders of the Yeshua-movement from Jerusalem results in the stories that will follow, in which the movement spreads into Samaria and beyond (Johnson).
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Scattering leads to spreading (4), Philip brings the gospel to Samaria (5-8), the gospel and the magician Simon (9-13), Peter and John visit and bring the gift of the Spirit (14-17), Simon tries to buy the authority to impart the Spirit (18-24), Peter and John return to Jerusalem (25).
It is interesting that in order to begin obeying Yeshua’s command to spread the gospel of the kingdom to Samaria (and later to other nations) the Yeshua-movement required a tragedy (the persecution going on in Jerusalem). Luke chooses not to emphasize the failings of the early movement, but some of them show between the lines. The Samaritans were not gentiles and could claim their own heritage as Israel. Yet with enmity between Jews and Samaritans, it is no wonder the mission to Samaria did not begin at once and was resisted. Simon is a strange figure with many post-biblical legends written about him. Also, in the medieval church the term “simony” was used for people who bought positions in the church (for the income and prestige the positions would bring). Luke emphasizes that the gospel confronts evil powers of demons and magic in all the places it goes (Johnson). When the gospel came to new people groups, God sent signs of Spirit-endowment to endorse the movement and demonstrate that he was with the people in power. Just as Israel had signs in the desert, but later miracles became rare, so it was with the early history of the Yeshua movement.
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An Ethiopian, in charge of Candace’s treasury (26-27), Philip interprets Isaiah 53 and relates the gospel of Yeshua (28-35), Philip baptizes and disappears (36-40).
Luke patterns this story to show his readers that the Spirit of the prophetic age is alive and well in the days of the apostles. Philip is like Elijah, running beside chariots as in 1 Kings 18:46. Just as Elijah was transported by the Spirit (1 Kings 18:12), so Philip is miraculously moved. Angelic beings spoke to Elijah (2 Kings 1:15) and they also speak to Philip. The very idea of an Ethiopian coming to the temple of Adonai in Jerusalem is reminiscent of Isaiah (from 11:11). Eunuchs will be included in God’s kingdom (Isa 56:3-5). Zephaniah 3 says that foreigners will bring offerings to the Lord from as far away as Ethiopia. Luke is showing here continuity with and continuation from the signs and wonders of the Jewish scriptures. The Yeshua-movement is the continuation of Israel’s story. Meanwhile, the prophet and Ethiopian discuss Isaiah 53:7-8, which is quoted here from the Greek version (the Septuagint, a.k.a. the LXX) except for a few small details. Luke quotes a version which uses an aorist verb for “did not open” rather than a participle (notes Johnson), and the word “his” is inserted before “lowliness/humiliation.” Luke’s version also takes advantage of the LXX’s wording in two places, saying “cut off” and “lifted up.” These renderings hint that the death of the servant involved not only a death, but also a resurrection. Is it legitimate to choose a translation of a verse from the Hebrew Bible which best suits an interpretation the writer wants to suggest? The rabbis in the age of midrash engaged in this technique, taking advantage of variant translations to point out multiple meanings of the sacred text. Therefore Luke’s creative use of Isaiah 53:7-8 is well within Jewish norms for applying scripture and his way of connecting Yeshua with the Servant in Isaiah is appropriate. Yeshua fills up the meaning of Isaiah’s Servant. Luke also emphasizes in this story elements of the early movement’s practices. They were baptizing and making disciples, things urgently needed to grow a tiny movement into a mighty wave across the empire. The Yeshua-community is spreading to the nations as Yeshua commanded. And it is God who is making this happen more so than the believers.
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Paul (Saul) as emissary of the Sanhedrin to persecute the Way (1-2), a light and a bat kol (heavenly voice, 3-4), Paul discovers the voice is Yeshua’s and there is a commission for him (5-6), Paul’s traveling companions are dumbfounded and Paul is blind (7-9).
There could hardly be a more ironic story. Paul (Saul, many people and especially Jews had multiple names in the Greco-Roman world) is acting on a commission from the council which had Yeshua executed. The supposedly dead Yeshua appeared as the Glory, shechinah, bright light, to Paul, blinding him and sent him on a new commission. Paul will no longer serve the Sanhedrin, but Yeshua. His commission is turned around completely. Further, the voice reveals itself to be Yeshua, the very one Paul is persecuting. Realizing that Yeshua was alive must have changed Paul’s theology in a flash. The messianic age really had dawned and the resurrection of the dead truly had begun, but why for only the Messiah at first and not for everyone? No doubt Paul’s keen mind was turning with the possibilities. This event was a radical reshaping of Paul’s identity and mission in life and in great power he would devote his life to this vision and all it entailed.
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Ananias summoned by the Lord to Paul (10-12), Ananias objects (13-14), the Lord confirms Paul’s calling to Ananias (15-16), Paul is healed and baptized by Ananias (17-19).
Ananias and Paul are having simultaneous visions. Paul, praying, sees Ananias coming to him and healing his blindness. Ananias converses in a vision with the Lord and debates about the task, not wanting to heal the dangerous Paul. The Lord confirms Paul’s calling: he will suffer for Yeshua, he will be the Lord’s chosen vessel, he will speak before kings, he will speak to those of the nations and those of Israel. Paul had not yet been filled with the Spirit (and yet he prayed and saw visions from God even before the gift of the Spirit!). When it came time for Paul to join the community, he was no exception to the rule. There is one way to join the Yeshua movement and even those who have already encountered miracles must come through the door of baptism in water.
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Paul’s proclamation in Damascus (20-22), plot to kill Paul and his escape from Damascus (23-25), distrusted in Jerusalem, Barnabas mediates for Paul (26-27), disputes with Hellenistic Jews in Jerusalem (28-29), Paul sent to Caesarea and then Tarsus for his safety (30).
Paul the agitator, the extremist, has moved his zeal from arresting disciples to making them. His incendiary past and newfound zeal for Yeshua will lead to several close calls with death and several moves to keep him alive. From Damascus to Jerusalem and then from Jerusalem to the port in Caesarea, Paul moves around and is moved around by other, even shipped off to Tarsus. Luke, his biographer, shows how relations between the sect of Yeshua followers and the Jewish community near to Jerusalem are on edge, with violence as a continuing danger. Thus we read of Paul “confounding” the Damascus synagogue leaders. Their opposition to the Yeshua sect preceded Paul’s coming apparently. Yet as Paul gets further away from Jerusalem he will be welcomed and given an opportunity to speak first and be heard. Even then, the message that one Jew has already experienced resurrection, that the new age has dawned, that God has appeared in Yeshua, that the unique deity has appeared on earth while being at the same time in heaven — this message will explode fragile communities and their social structures. The pressure of the compromises between Roman identity, Jewish identity, the participation of non-Jews in synagogues, the tolerance of Greco-Roman leaders for Jewish non-conformity, and the culture of honor and shame will erupt volcanically at times. Nonetheless, we read that the apostles continued even at this time to live in Jerusalem. And in this time of danger servants such as Barnabas come along, assisting others and being examples of virtue in hard times. He is call the “son of encouragement,” being committed to the point of selling property to use his former assets for a higher purpose (4:36-37). Barnabas is all in. He mediates between the lightning rod, Paul, and the precariously positioned Twelve. They are afraid of the Pharisee from Tarsus, who used to preside over the deaths of their friends. Luke’s depiction of this era of Paul’s life is full of danger, small successes, bold moves, and an as yet unclear sense of mission and purpose. The clarity of mission and purpose will come in chapter 11.
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Peace in Judea, Galilee, and Samaria (31), Peter heals Aeneas in Lydda (32-35), Peter raises Tabitha (Dorcas) in Joppa (36-42), Peter dwells with Simon the Tanner (43).
Since Paul, who was formerly the chief persecutor of the community, has now joined it, trouble has quieted in Jerusalem and there is peace (Johnson). The Yeshua community now spans Judea, Galilee, and Samaria. The work of Yeshua carries on through the Twelve, so that Peter’s miracles resemble those of his master. He even uses the gentle command “arise” like Yeshua had done before him in healing and reviving the dead. Peter’s power is reminiscent also of Elijah and Elisha. This is the spirit of Yeshua passed on to the disciples to continue his works through them. The story of Tabitha hints that there were many righteous disciples who lived lives of generosity and faith. Luke presents this as an ideal of discipleship, that Yeshua’s followers would be known for almsgiving. Otherwise anonymous Jews, like Simon the Tanner, become well-known names in Acts because of the role they played in the community of apostles. Hospitality and good deeds are noteworthy in a movement that is about spreading the love of Messiah.
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Cornelius introduced as a devout gentile drawn near to the Jewish people (1-2), an angel announces that favor is on Cornelius from on high (3-4), Cornelius is to send messengers to Joppa for Peter (5-6), Cornelius complies (7-8).
The Italian Cohort, a known unit of the Roman army comprising 600 men head by six centurions, was stationed in the geographical region known to Rome as Syria (Johnson). Joppa, being a major port, would have been a strategic place for Roman soldiers to be stationed. When we read that Cornelius “feared God,” this is not merely a description of his inner religious disposition, but was a technical term for non-Jews who attended synagogue as associate members. We know from such authors as Josephus as well as various Roman writings that God-fearers were a rather common phenomenon throughout the empire. Judaism attracted admirers. Quite importantly, Luke says that the reason Cornelius had such favor with God was his good works, specifically almsgiving. In fact, God accepted Cornelius’ good deeds as a memorial offering (as if he offered sacrifices in the temple). In Acts 9:36 we see a similar description of Tabitha as one rich in good deeds. The idea that God specially favors people, and at times that he bestows greater gifts on them, who are rich in good deeds, strikes seemingly at the notion of “grace.” Grace is a doctrine that God favors people without respect to merit or what they deserve. But in reality the idea of grace and merited favor both can co-exist. God loves us before we love him and even while we are sinners. There is plenty of grace. But this does not preclude him from having a special relationship with those who are doing his work in a powerful and selfless way. Giving to the poor brings divine favor, according to Acts. It is a quintessential mark of a disciple of Yeshua to be generous with the family in the congregation and also to give to the needy.
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Peter prays and enters an ecstatic state (9-10), Peter told in a vision to eat clean and unclean alike (11-16), the Spirit directs Peter to go with the men from Cornelius (17-21), the men describe Cornelius as a God-fearer and Peter invites them in (22-23a).
God is working simultaneously in Cornelius’ life and Peter’s. The coincident timing is noted, since the men are on their way to Peter when he has the vision. God prepares Peter with a vision he does not at first understand. The thing like a sheet from heaven contains four-footed animals, snakes, and birds. Peter’s refusal to eat the common and unclean animals is much like Ezekiel’s refusal (Ezek 4:14). It is also a lesson for us that we are not to simply obey a voice from heaven unthinkingly. Moses and Ezekiel, as well as Peter here, protested God’s initial command at times. Abraham debated the Lord of Justice. God calls us to thoughtful obedience and even a word from heaven may be a test, requiring us to choose goodness and love. In Peter’s case, the word from heaven seemed to contradict the covenant regulations he had followed all his life. His protest was part of the encounter and God expected him to respond in this way. The double description (common and unclean, koinos and akathartos) is redundant, both words subject to misunderstanding and clarifying each other (Johnson). Koinos has been used in a positive sense for “in common,” the sharing and togetherness of the community. Akathartos has been used for unclean spirits. Used together, the phrase attempts to capture the Torah theology of unclean meats. They are not evil, but common. Uncleanness is not wickedness, but the clean meats are separated or holy, for a people chosen to live according to holiness. Peter does not yet understand the meaning of the vision, but is given the clear commands to: (1) accept the things God has cleansed and (2) to go with the men from Cornelius.
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Peter comes to Cornelius in Caesarea (23b-27), Peter explains traditional prohibition of table fellowship and God’s command to disregard it (28-29), Cornelius’ story (30-33), Peter explains the gospel as centered in Israel but as a message for the God-fearing of all nations (34-43), the Spirit falls on the gentiles, amazing the Jewish disciples (44-46), the gentiles are baptized and Peter stays on to teach them (47-48).
The prohibition of table fellowship with non-Jews was a matter of custom and not written commandment from the Torah. Peter and the Jewish disciples are being challenged to think of people in a new way. Peter expresses it clearly, “in every nation, the one who fears God and acts righteously is acceptable to him.” Peter likely had accepted the notion scholars now call covenantal nomism, that the Chosen People are acceptable to God because of their birth into the chosen nation. He understands now that God’s purpose in choosing Israel was never to limit the people of God to one nation. In his brief sermon, Peter not only explains the story of Yeshua, his identity and purpose, as spreading from Israel to the nations, but also introduces the new idea that Yeshua is the judge of all people, living and dead (Johnson). The Yeshua community is still in the process of digesting the information about Yeshua’s identity. Quickly their understanding of Yeshua’s role and power is expanding, so that they see him as more than merely a king for the Jewish people. That the acceptance of non-Jews by God was possible, without conversion, was a huge new idea for the Yeshua community to swallow. Even after this, the matter is not settled and in chapter 11 Peter must make his case before the Jerusalem leadership (Johnson).
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Peter accused of unlawful table fellowship (1-3), Peter tells his story to the apostles and leaders in Jerusalem (4-17), the apostles and Jerusalem leadership recognize God’s word and rejoice (18).
Johnson notes a number of passages in the Bible and later Jewish literature which consider the problem of sharing a table with gentiles. Daniel avoided the food of the king’s table and ate vegetables (Dan 1:8, 12-16). In 2 Maccabees 5:27, Judah Maccabee and his men remained in the desert eating from the wild rather than be deceived and share the table of Appollonius, the Mysian. Sharing a table with those not dedicated to God was thought dangerous, a path to apostasy. Yeshua was criticized for having sinners at his table. Johnson says that the repetitive nature of this passage is vital to its interpretation. The matter of inclusion of gentiles is vital enough for lengthy exposition. Further, the story must be told to and approved by the Jerusalem congregation to show that unity of the Spirit existed at the foundation of the gospel spreading from the Jewish people to the nations. It must be seen that there was no division. There is no basis for questioning the authenticity of gentile disciples. The determining factor for everyone is the sign of the Spirit descending upon the gentiles. This is irrefutable proof, vouchsafed by more than two witnesses, that God made his choice and man is not to question it.
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During the persecution the movement spreads (19), Hellenistic Jewish disciples found a congregation at Antioch (20-21), Barnabas represents Jerusalem in testing and affirming the Antioch congregation (22-24), Barnabas fetches Paul and brings him to Antioch (25), a year of Barnabas and Paul leading a large crowd in Antioch (26), Agabus foretells a famine in the Empire (27-28), an offering raised for the Judean disciples (29-30).
Antioch is a case of expansion of the movement to non-Jews perhaps simultaneous with Peter’s experience with Cornelius. Founded by Hellenist Jews, the congregation at Antioch was a mixture of Jews and Greeks. The people of Antioch devised a name for these disciples, Christians or messianists, a designation that may have had a negative connotation to outsiders (Johnson compares the usage to “Moonies”). The Jerusalem congregation’s role is clearly as overseer of the start of new movements to insure that the gospel is being accurately passed on. Antioch was one of the largest cities in the Roman empire.
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Herod Agrippa persecutes the movement and executes James, brother of John (1-2), Agrippa arrests Peter (3-4), the congregation is praying for Peter continually (5), an angel of the Lord sets Peter free (6-11), some disciples are visited by Peter after initial doubts that he could be free (12-17), Agrippa has the guards executed and leaves Judea (18-19).
Herod Agrippa I is the grandson of Herod the Great. The Herod in the birth narratives of Yeshua is Herod the Great while the Herod who killed John and sought to kill Yeshua was Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee. Herod Agrippa I held power over Galilee and Judea thanks to his political deals with Roman officials. James the brother of John was one of the twelve and in the innermost circle of three. Yet this is the only story we know of him outside of the gospels. James the brother of Yeshua is not executed for some time yet (people often confuse them). Peter goes off to another place (vs. 17), probably Antioch, because his life in Jerusalem would be forfeit. This explains how James the brother of Yeshua came to be the chief leader in Jerusalem (Johnson). There is ironic humor in the story, as the praying disciples cannot believe the thing they have prayed for comes to pass.
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Herod Agrippa in Caesarea in matters of state (20), Agrippa assumes a deified role (21-22), Agrippa dies horribly but the Yeshua movement thrives (23-25).
Johnson calls this story reversal. A tyrant set out to persecute the Yeshua movement, which in itself symbolically set the political leader as a rival to God. In an appearance in Caesarea, Agrippa makes so much of his royal station that people see him as deifying himself. The tyrant dies and the movement he sought to persecute thrives. The death of Agrippa as recorded by Josephus agrees in many details with Luke’s version. The Josephus account has some different emphases, but it is clear that Luke and Josephus are reporting the same event.
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Ordination of Barnabas and Paul (1-3), the first journey of Paul and Barnabas begins (4-5), Paul’s encounter with a Jewish magician at Paphos (6-12).
Luke sees the events of this chapter as a milestone in the early history of Yeshua’s people. It is the beginning of a new phase, the messianic faith going out from Israel and the Jewish people to the nations. It is Jerusalem going out to Rome. No doubt Luke intended his history to be reassuring to the non-Jews who believed in Yeshua. The identity of non-Jewish Yeshua followers was questioned from two sides, leaving them possibly feeling inferior. On the one side, the Greco-Roman culture viewed them as having abandoned their place as loyal citizens and worshippers of the gods. There was a growing threat of persecution for gentiles who did not bow to the image of Caesar and pay tribute to Roman gods. On the other side, the synagogue culture was increasingly concerned about their claims to full covenant privilege in Abraham without proselyte conversion. That is to say, the believers claimed to be fully part of the broader kingdom of Israel, covered by the Abrahamic blessings, without having undergone conversion and without their males being circumcised. Yet Luke’s history shows this was the plan of Yeshua, that his disciples would go out and bring in gentiles as gentiles, not converts to Judaism. The Jerusalem congregation, therefore, approves Paul and Barnabas to go out from Antioch. And the congregation at Antioch is second only to Jerusalem in the order of its founding and importance among the earliest believers. The mission to the gentiles is met with immediate success. Paul’s mighty works, the power of a true prophet, are due to the living presence of Yeshua. He overcomes a Jewish false prophet, an apostate Jewish sorcerer, with the power of the God of Israel. And these signs by Paul’s hand further validate the movement toward the gentiles. Furthermore, Paul’s message to them is the same one he proclaims in the synagogues. There is nothing inferior about the gospel the gentiles believe and practice.
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Paul and Barnabas in the Pisidian Antioch synagogue (13-15), Paul’s message (16-41).
This Antioch was a smaller city in Asia Minor (as opposed to the great Antioch in Syria, home of the second congregation of the Yeshua movement). In his message, Paul says that who Yeshua is and what he does proceeds from the meaning of Israel’s past. His lineage is Davidic. His trial and execution fit the theme in the prophets of the innocent sufferer. His resurrection is evidence of his royalty. Meanwhile, Johnson observes that Luke, who is, of course, writing all this with an agenda, is paralleling Paul with Yeshua in some ways. Paul was affirmed in Antioch, faced demonic powers in Paphos, speaks in the synagogue in Pisidia, and will be rejected by his countrymen. Paul is continuing Yeshua’s work with some of the same results. If we analyze Paul’s sermon we see its similarity to the one by Peter in chapter 2 and Stephen in chapter 7. Yet Paul’s discourse has a pointed message for Gentiles. It is not by birth or conversion to Judaism (via circumcision) that one is reconciled to God. Peter’s message in chapter 2 and Stephen’s in chapter 7 were focused on a Jewish audience. Paul’s gospel to the Gentiles is reflected here. Though Acts depicts Paul as a traditional Jew (see especially Acts 21:21), he does not agree that the usual Jewish method of incorporating Gentiles into God’s kingdom is right or appropriate. Something has happened in Yeshua and the days are different. The messianic age has dawned and God is drawing Gentiles as Gentiles to himself. Paul repudiates the idea that the law of Moses is intended to free Gentiles from alienation to God (vs. 39). No, says Paul, Torah itself shows that something more than Torah was needed. To demonstrate this he quotes Habakkuk 1:5. The prophet Habakkuk, of course, had Torah. But God told him to look for something more, to await a special revelation. In Habakkuk’s day this referred to the events surrounding the Babylonian exile and release from it. Paul uses this theme rightly to say God’s way is to bring new revelation from time to time. The events surrounding Yeshua’s resurrection, ascension, and his appearances to many from the right hand of God are that something new. The Son of David has come. Paul invites Gentiles to be part of the broader kingdom of Israel by believing and adhering to Messiah.
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The eager response Jews and proselytes to Paul’s message (42-44), jealousy and opposition from synagogue leaders (45), Paul’s judgment is to turn from the synagogue to the gentiles in Pisidia (46-47), rejoicing gentiles and those destined for eternal life (48-49), persecuting Jewish leaders and departing apostles (50-51), joy and filling of the Spirit (52).
As Yeshua before him, Paul is rejected by the leadership, but he finds followers in the fringes (some Jews and proselytes). God-fearers are not mentioned in the initial list of followers (42-44), but would seem to be included in the rejoicing gentiles mentioned later (48-49). The synagogues needed gentile God-fearers to provide financial support and saw this new Messianic movement as competition. The fact that the Yeshua movement accepted gentiles as full members without conversion to Judaism was a scandal. Johnson notes this is all following the pattern of Isaiah 49:6 (the text that Paul and Barnabas cite in response), restoring the tribes of Israel and then being a light to the nations. In all the adversity, the community has joy and the living Presence of God.
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Mixed results and then danger at Iconium (1-7), mistaken for Zeus at Lystra (8-13), Paul’s message at Lystra (14-18).
Iconium is located in the regions of Phrygia and Lycaonia in Asia Minor. We know little about Lystra. Legends says that Zeus once came to Phrygia bringing along his herald, the messenger god Hermes (Johnson). In the stories people treated the gods, who came in human form with their divine identities hidden, with respect and hospitality. As a reward for their virtue, Zeus granted the Phrygians a status as priests (similar in some ways to stories in the Torah about how the Levites became the priestly class in Israel). As Paul comes to the area, he puts into practice his principle “to the Jew first and then the gentiles.” He does this even though at the end of ch. 13 he declared that he was turning away from Jews to gentiles. In Iconium, Paul tastes his first persecution from the gentile population. At Lystra, Paul experiences the opposite tendency, a naive polytheism ready to equate Jewish ideas about the Holy Spirit with Greco-Roman beliefs about magic and the gods. Paul’s message to the crowd is that God in the past was forbearing about such things, but now that he was making himself known, judgment would be stricter. God, he says, had always been present with the gentiles, blessing them with the same rain and goodness as the righteous. The good news is a message calling for gentiles to turn from allegiance to strange gods and recognize Israel’s God alone. We can observe that Paul adapted his message and approach to fit the specific situations he found. These idol-worshippers did not need to hear so much about Yeshua making atonement as about the God who is all and over all. If they could accept such a change, becoming followers of God’s Messiah would be a natural further step.
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Paul is stoned and left for dead, but is healed (19-20), strengthening disciples in other cities (21-25), return to Antioch and a long sojourn there (26-28).
Paul’s life has followed the pattern of Yeshua’s: proclamation, disciples, rejection, persecution, a near-death, and a resuscitation. Paul’s stoning occurred in Lystra. After he is healed, Paul retreats for a while to Derbe. He does not confront and take on his persecutors with power, Johnson notes, but spends time elsewhere relating to people and organizing communities before returning to Lystra and doing more teaching there. There is no need for continued explosive preaching, a task which introduces the gospel in a new place, but the quiet work of relationships and mentoring.
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Because of the importance of this chapter, I offer here an extended commentary.
Vs.1 – In Antioch, some men (Pharisees) from Judea came with a teaching about how Gentiles are to be received: they must be circumcised (as proselytes, converted) or they cannot be saved.
Vss.2-4 – Paul and Barnabas debated and opposed this group, determined that the matter should be heard by Yaakov (James) and the Jerusalem community. At this point, the disagreement is framed by one issue: whether Gentiles need Jewish conversion to be saved.
Vss. 5-6 – Yeshua-followers from the Pharisees make their case that Gentiles must be circumcised (converted to Jewish status) and to observe the Torah of Moses. Now the issue has expanded to two concerns: (1) that Gentiles need Jewish conversion to be saved and (2) that Gentiles need to keep the whole Torah. Issue (2) is preceded by a certain understanding, a Jewish interpretation of Torah which certainly arose in later rabbinic literature, but which may also have been extant at that time: that the righteous of the nations were not called to keep the whole Torah. The classic example became Noah, who had permission to eat all foods except blood, and upon whom there was no expectation of circumcision, a Temple for sacrifices, or of a Sabbath or calendar of holy days.
Vss. 7-11 – Peter’s testimony: God revealed to him to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, God gave the Spirit to these Gentiles and thus affirmed them, God made no distinction between Jews and Gentiles, why put the yoke of Torah on Gentiles when Israel has failed to follow Torah, we believe salvation is by God’s favor and not our worthiness. We should note for the issue we are considering that: (1) Peter said Torah was a yoke Israel could not keep and (2) Peter denied the idea of covenantal nomism, that Israel was saved because it was elected to receive Torah. What did Peter mean by (1)? He did not mean that it is impossible for a person to be diligent about dietary law and Sabbath. He meant that Torah’s demands go to the core of a person and no one but Yeshua could fully keep it. He meant that as a nation, Israel could not keep the outer demands, much less the core demands such as love and justice. The argument is essentially: it is the doers of Torah who are saved, not merely those who receive it.
EXCURSUS 1: How could Peter say God made no distinction between Jews and Gentiles when the chapter as a whole does make a distinction? This is not really a difficulty. Words mean what they mean in context and contexts usually have limits. Peter does not mean that God makes no distinction at all between Israel and the nations. This would be counter to the Torah and also to the rest of the ruling in Acts 15, in which it will be decided that Jews in Messiah have a different relationship to Torah than Gentiles. He means that in the most important terms (love, blessing, redemption, salvation, etc.), God makes no distinction. He never did. God was saving people before Israel existed (consider Noah). God always had in mind saving the nations and says so in Torah (especially Deut 32).
Vs. 12 – Paul and Barnabas’ testimony: Gentiles were receiving the gospel and God was doing signs among them. It is implied that Paul and Barnabas had not been converting Gentiles via circumcision and neither had they been teaching Gentiles to keep the whole Torah.
Vss. 13-18 – Yaakov (James) speaks and his word is taken as the judgment of the Jerusalem apostles. In vs. 14, his wording is carefully chosen. God has taken for himself from the Gentiles a people for his name. This language Yaakov will find in a scriptural precedent, Amos 9:11-12. Yaakov quotes from a version which is closer to the Septuagint. The citation as Yaakov uses it has the following connections to the situation being debated: (1) the tabernacle of David will be rebuilt, a promise Yaakov saw being fulfilled in the rise of the Yeshua movement in Israel, (2) that the rest of mankind would seek God, which Yaakov saw fulfilled in the preaching of Peter, Paul, and Barnabas, and (3) that there would be Gentiles called by God’s name. Point (3) is the crux of Yaakov’s use of Amos 9. God calls Gentiles without making them become Jews.
Vss.19-21 – Yaakov makes a ruling (“it is my judgment”): (1) that we not trouble the Gentiles and (2) that we ask for careful observance of four issues. Yaakov gives a further reason for his ruling, in addition to the argument from Amos 9. The additional reason is that Moses has been and is being read since ancient times in the diaspora synagogues. The emphasis is on past and current reading of Moses, not future.
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Letter from the Jerusalem Council sent to Antioch (22-29), rejoicing and mentoring from Jerusalem to Antioch (30-35), Paul and Silas separate from Barnabas and go on a second journey (36-41).
Johnson notes that the handling of the letter and the relations between the mother congregation in Jerusalem and the major center of Antioch is a model for leadership and unity in the Yeshua movement. Luke emphasizes the even-handedness of the Jerusalem leaders, the reliance on scripture in reaching decisions, the group unity empowered by the Holy Spirit as the people all receive the teaching with joy, and the mutual commitment and harmony between all involved. There is a partnership between human leadership and God’s word and power at work here. By contrast, Paul and Barnabas are unable to find harmony over whether to include John Mark. The issue seems to be that John Mark withdrew from the first mission, perhaps in fear of persecution. Barnabas, known for his mercy, wanted to reinstate him but Paul did not. The sad truth of disharmony enters even into the mission of these giants of early faith and spiritual power.
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