In this landmark volume, the authors help readers understand the New Testament in context, as the writers originally intended. The book sheds additional light on this witness of Jesus Christ, offering further evidence that, although it is an ancient book, the New Testament has a modern message for everyone. If you want the authoritative single-volume work on the New Testament, this is it!
- Size: 6 x 9
- Pages: 544
- Published: 2010
About the Authors
RICHARD NEITZEL HOLZAPFEL is a professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University and recently served as president of the Alabama Birmingham Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He holds a PhD from the University of California—Irvine and is the author of numerous published articles on Latter-day Saint history and ancient history as well as the author, coauthor, or editor of more than forty books.
THOMAS A. WAYMENT is a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. He completed a PhD in New Testament Studies at Claremont Graduate University and has published extensively on New Testament topics. The author, coauthor, or editor of many published articles and several books, he serves as the publications director of the Religious Studies Center at BYU.
THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES
Luke, the author of Acts, divided his
two-part work (Luke–Acts) into distinct halves—Jesus’ mortal ministry and the ministry “through the Holy Ghost” (Acts 1:2)—and covers the history of the Church from roughly A.D. 30 to A.D. 60/62, with little information from A.D. 37 to A.D. 46. This two-part division may also have been determined in part because of the practical consideration of the length of a papyrus or parchment roll.
The Savior’s Post-Resurrection Ministry
Luke begins by addressing Theophilus, perhaps a symbolic name (Greek, theophilos, “lover of God”), or possibly even a wealthy patron who had commissioned Luke to write the Gospel.
Luke’s sources now shift from being comparative, in constant dialogue with the other written Gospels, to being the sole witness for many of the events he describes in Acts. In doing so, Luke became, whether by official call or through happenstance, the first Church historian, with an emphasis on Paul and an almost complete neglect of Roman history unless it informs Christian history (for example, he passes over the assassination of the Emperor Caligula in A.D. 41). The sources he drew upon were incomplete for the forty-day ministry, regarding which Luke says that Jesus, “being assembled together with them, commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, saith he, ye have heard of me” (1:4). The Lord revealed in this dispensation what the phrase “promise of the Father” meant: “Yea, verily I say unto you I gave unto you a commandment that you should build a house, in the which house I design to endow those whom I have chosen with power from on high; for this is the promise of the Father unto you” (D&C 95:8–9). The Lord instructed the disciples further, telling them to look beyond Judea to Samaria, the location of one of Jesus’ most successful teaching experiences (John 4:39).
While Matthew and Mark end with the disciples having traveled to Galilee, Luke ends and Acts begins with the Lord instructing them to stay in Jerusalem for the promise of the Father to be given. This apparent contradiction in the accounts may simply reveal that the endings of the Gospels reflect a time longer than the forty-day ministry.
As expected, the disciples went to the upper room, the location of which still seems to be implied in Luke’s Gospel, to consider how to implement the instructions given in the
forty-day ministry (a “sabbath day’s journey” was about a thousand yards; Josephus, Antiquities 20.169). That first apostolic council considered other matters besides a worldwide mission. They were also faced with replacing one of the members of their quorum. Acts 1:14 refers to another meeting as well, one in which Jesus’ mother and siblings were present. The reference to Jesus’ brothers provides the first indication in the New Testament that Jesus’ siblings had come to believe in him (John 7:1–7; 1 Corinthians 15:7).
The Calling of a New Member of the Twelve
Some time has passed between the forty-day ministry and Peter’s call for a council, as Luke notes subtly that the number of members has continued to grow, implying that the new Church indeed had a future. Luke then recounts a separate tradition concerning the death of Judas Iscariot, one both similar and different from that of Matthew 27:3–10. The Joseph Smith Translation of Matthew 27:5 harmonizes the accounts.
Peter put forth two requirements for the newly called member of the Twelve: first, the individual had to company “with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us” (Acts 1:21–22); and second, the individual must “be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection” (1:22). The implications of these requirements imply a special witness, which can be gleaned from the phrase “with us,” in the sense of “like us.” That the individual must be a follower of Jesus from the days of John the Baptist would severely limit the number of potential candidates, and by the end of the first century all potential candidates would have passed on. This requirement, while probably not intended to be interpreted rigidly through all time, may signal the reason why the second generation of Jesus’ followers ceased to refer to their leaders as apostles and preferred rather the title of bishop. On the other hand, that Jesus had called and trained special witnesses would suggest that he intended to have such in every dispensation.
The Day of Pentecost
Pentecost is celebrated seven weeks after Passover/Easter Sunday, or fifty days later, which places the event in late spring at the time of the harvest of the first crops of the season, and its celebration is described in the Old Testament (Exodus 23:16; 34:22; Numbers 28:26). The foundational accounts of the beginning of the Church in the meridian of time were as important to the Saints of that dispensation as our own beginnings are in our dispensation. This account, which in many ways resembles a First Vision account with parallels to the events that occurred on the day the Kirtland Temple was dedicated, describes the prophetic beginnings of a Christian church. Of particular interest is the number of people who witnessed the event. The verbs of recognition are important also, where the crowd heard a “rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting” (2:2) and they saw “cloven tongues like as of fire” (2:3).
The story also advances the role of Galileans in these accounts, a sentiment that likely reveals a continuing distrust of Judean Jews and their opposition to Jesus. The list of nations spans much of the known world in the disciples’ day, although it does not reach as far as Spain or into northern Europe, thus suggesting at least initially that the list is not a stylized portrayal, but rather in many ways a literal listing of those present. However, the mention of countries such as Elam, which had ceased to exist, suggests a symbolic emphasis in the account. The reference to new wine is probably associated with the concept of harvest that Pentecost was intended to celebrate, but certainly not new in the sense of without fermentation as implied in their assumption: “Others mocking said, These men are full of new wine. But Peter . . . lifted up his voice, and said . . . be this known unto you . . . these are not drunken, as ye suppose” (2:13–15).
Peter’s Speech on the Day of Pentecost
In Peter’s odyssey from Galilean fisherman to head of the Church, perhaps no single speech more fully represents his growth as president and the sentiments of the earliest members. The speech follows a threefold structure. First, the earliest Christians understood what they were experiencing as a fulfillment of prophecy in a literal way (Joel 2:28–32; compare Joseph Smith–History 1:41). Second, Peter taught that the death of Jesus should not be interpreted as a setback, but rather as part of the “determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God” (2:23); and although the Judean plot against Jesus is acknowledged, there is no lingering animosity as Peter quickly returns to the theme of God’s plan (2:24–25). Third, the Resurrection and the power of the Resurrection to bring mankind out of “hell” and “corruption” have become the message (2:27). Peter’s message is that of victory and not defeat, which stands in stark contrast to his earlier admonition to Jesus that he not go to Jerusalem and offer his life in sacrifice (Matthew 16:21–23). This threefold approach may represent the core of the gospel message the missionaries carried into Samaria, Galilee, and beyond.
A modern reader may find the references to David’s prophetic psalms unsettling in light of his later actions against Uriah, but Luke fully represents the sentiments of the first century, that David’s words were still highly respected (Psalms 16:8–10; 110:1). Although the location of David’s tomb is uncertain, it was apparently well known in Peter’s day and may have been considered a national treasure (Acts 2:29).
In reading these verses, the impression made is that an ancient reader would understand the allusions and implications of these verses, so Luke is able to move quickly to the organization of the Church in Jerusalem. He passes over the form of baptism and other important details. Although it is unclear where Peter’s speech was delivered, it is reasonable to assume that it was given at or very near the temple where there would have been mikva’ot, or ritual immersion pools. There, in the shadow of the temple, stood several mikva’ot, and Peter instructed those who had been “pricked in their heart” (Acts 2:37) to “be baptized” (2:38), thus possibly using the setting to foreshadow how the new covenant would reform the old.
Continuing in the Apostles’ Doctrine
Luke wrote many years after the events described in these verses occurred, and therefore the events are described in past tense. With that -perspective, it is important that Luke offer some description of origins for practices with which Christians were generally familiar. Luke moves quickly, and in a single verse details the revelation and implementation of the law of consecration (Acts 2:44). For Luke, the institution of the practice of the law of consecration may have been part of the distant past, an event for which he had only the sketchiest details. Luke also explains that the earliest Christians continued to participate in temple activities in Jerusalem while the temple still stood (prior to A.D. 70) and that they broke bread from house to house following the practice the Lord had revealed on the night of the Last Supper. But perhaps the most profound inference came through Luke’s perspective of having written during the last decades of the first century: “And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (2:42). The early members found safety standing in the doctrine as taught by the apostles, perhaps hinting at one of the causes of apostasy as Luke understood it.
A Miracle in the Temple
The ninth hour of prayer signaled also the time of the evening sacrifice that was made in the temple by the priests, and Peter’s and John’s presence there may reflect both their interest in teaching the gospel to their countrymen and their continuation in following the practices they had consistently observed while Jesus was with them. The man who asks Peter and John for alms appears to have been well known: “They knew that it was he which sat for alms” (Acts 3:10). He was probably perpetually in that condition, even during Jesus’ ministry to the temple. At the conclusion of the miracle, “all the people ran together unto them in the porch that is called Solomon’s, greatly wondering” (3:11). The antecedent of “them” in the 3:11 appears to be Peter and John, who respond in 3:12 as though the crowd has approached them. Luke, with this brief description of the miracle, subtly illustrates the growing power of the disciples in contrast to the waning power of the temple and its priests.
Peter Addresses Those Who Have Seen
the Miracle in the Temple
Those who assembled to hear Peter’s response in light of having witnessed a miracle were strongly rebuked by Peter, evidence that the audience was not composed simply of interested onlookers. Peter chose to rebuke them on the matter of Jesus’ death, perhaps further identifying some members of the crowd as belonging to the group who condemned Jesus (John 18:15, 35) and cried for the release of Barabbas. Peter interpreted Pilate’s role as less significant than those who cried for the condemnation of Jesus, and may already represent a trend to see Pilate as a manipulated, incapable governor (Acts 3:13).
The Prophet like Moses
A second theme of Peter’s discourse was Jesus’ future fulfillment of the prophecy of the coming of a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15–18). When Jesus returns in the “times of restitution of all things” (Acts 3:21), he will also fulfill Moses’ prophecy of a prophet that should be heard, “in all things” (3:22). Although Peter does not specifically mention baptism, there is optimism in his closing words, encouraging his audience to see Jesus through the prophets and the “covenant which God made with our fathers” (3:25).
Apostles Continue in the Example of Jesus
Following the pattern that is also present in the Gospel of John, that miracles and teaching truth provoke the wicked, the disciples here are treated in a manner similar to the way Jesus was treated, thus providing evidence that they are following his example. Luke reports that the priests, probably meaning those who administered the sacrifices in the temple, the appointed captain of the temple guard, and the Sadducees came together. Although an official inquiry into the matter is implied, more than likely it was mob oriented, given the diverse groups who confronted the apostles. The primary concern of that group was that the apostles were teaching the Resurrection, thus suggesting that the opposition may have been primarily Sadducean (the Pharisees purportedly accepted the doctrine of a resurrection). Perhaps Luke’s source for this incident was not clear whether this was an official inquiry by the Sanhedrin, which was controlled primarily by Sadducees, or whether it was a mob action.
The disciples spent the night in prison, awaiting a hearing during the day, which Luke reports resulted from Jewish concerns for holding the hearing at night (Acts 4:3). When the hearing reconvened, the confronting group was fundamentally different, and now there were “rulers, and elders, and scribes, and Annas the high priest, and Caiaphas, and John, and Alexander, and as many as were of the kindred of the high priest, were gathered together at Jerusalem” (4:5–6), thus making the high priest and those protecting his interests to blame for the arrest and interrogation. Annas was not actually serving as high priest at the time this incident occurred, and perhaps Luke intended to indicate Jonathan ben Ananus or Caiaphas, or perhaps the title stayed with him for life.
Peter was permitted to address those who were concerned about his teachings in the temple. When he did so, he returned to the volatile topic of the interpretation of Psalm 118:22, which Jesus had also addressed shortly after the triumphal entry (Matthew 21:42). Peter testified boldly to the truthfulness of the gospel message and the miracle, showing that the disciples were continuing in the example and teachings of Jesus and that they were not perpetuating some new philosophy. The historical foundation for the apostles’ doctrine is an important point of emphasis in Luke’s account.
The council, or the implied Sanhedrin, convened to settle the matter, deciding that the apostles’ witness was too powerful to deny. Luke reports that their official response was to threaten the disciples, which had little effect. This ironic portrayal of the council threatening the disciples because the witness was too great to deny also implies that the witness would be too great for anyone to deny and therefore the threat would be useless.
Details of the Law of Consecration
By returning to the subject of the practice of consecration, Luke intentionally shows how the threats recorded in Acts 4:30 resulted in a strengthening of the Christian community. In fact, the “company . . . lifted up their voice to God with one accord” and now speaks with a unified voice (Acts 4:23–24; emphasis added). Peter made a full report of their experiences to the assembled Christians who were no doubt concerned about their overnight absence. The threats also have the added benefit of strengthening the fledgling consecrated community.
It is difficult to know exactly how the early Saints practiced the law of consecration, and Luke here reports some details: “Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need” (4:34–35). The ownership of consecrated properties is not mentioned, and Luke’s description could lead to the conclusion that all properties were sold and the proceeds consecrated, but such a landless community would have little hope of long-term survival. The structure, however, seems to have strong parallels to the annual Jewish festivals where the poor were fed from the sacrifices made in the temple. The focus in Acts 4 is also to meet needs and to take care of those who lack. Joseph (Acts gives the shortened form “Joses”) Barnabas is also introduced for the first time in the account as one who lived the law of consecration (4:36).
Ananias and Sapphira
Although Luke does not unequivocally mention it, this incident appears to constitute the end of the practice of the law of consecration among the members of the early Church. The practice is not mentioned in detail again in the remainder of the New Testament, and by the time Paul wrote Galatians (Galatians 2:10; c. A.D. 48–50), the poor were being cared for through a general collection. Ananias and Sapphira’s duplicity in holding back a portion of the price from selling a possession was likely one of many events that led to the practice being discontinued and may also reveal why the Lord acted so decisively in punishing their disobedience. The practice of the law of consecration was likely limited to the Jerusalem Saints and the ending of it, or at least the problem of corruption here detailed, foreshadows later internal issues that would rend the Church.
The Apostles Face Persecution in Jerusalem
The reason one account is preserved and another is passed over is often an integral part of interpreting what that account is intended to teach. In Acts 5 a straightforward cause-and-effect story is retold: the apostles performed miracles, which led to the Sadducees imprisoning and threatening them. Luke shows no concern for historical intricacies in the story, such as how the Sadducees were able to wield the power to arrest and harass so freely. Instead, he seems to follow the prophecy of the Gospel of John, in which the Lord told the disciples, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father” (John 14:12), and then subsequently, “They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service” (John 16:2). Both of these predictions were fulfilled in these events.
The apostles were arrested for violating the command they were given in Acts 4:18 to not teach in the name of Jesus (Acts 5:25, 28), which would have been a violation of a Sanhedrin edict but probably not punishable under Roman law. Luke adds as a conclusion to this account the intervention of Gamaliel, a moderate Jewish voice and Paul’s teacher, where he called for restraint in harassing the disciples of Jesus, teaching instead that “if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God” (5:39), a statement that Luke certainly understood as prophetic. The rebellions of Judas and Theudas (5:36–37) are also referred to by Josephus and can be dated respectively to circa A.D. 6 and circa A.D. 45 (Antiquities 18.6; 20.5; War 2.8).
Care for the Widows
Following the practice of the entire community living the law of consecration, Luke now reports that the “number of the disciples was multiplied,” but that with this increase in membership, the Greek widows were not being cared for in the same way that the Hebrew widows (probably Greek and Aramaic speaking Judeans) were being cared for (Acts 6:1). The “daily ministration” (6:1) appears to be a modified form of the law of consecration, which Paul also mentions in 1 Timothy 5:9. The calling of seven men to serve the widows raises the question of which priesthood office they were called to serve in, and although Luke does not specifically mention it in the account, he twice uses the Greek term diakonia “service” from which the modern word deacon ultimately derives (6:1–2, 4). Philip, who is called here, is also noted later as having the authority to baptize (Acts 8:38). More important perhaps for Luke is the introduction of Stephen into the story, which provides a transition to the introduction of Paul (Acts 7:58).
The Synagogue of the Libertines
The King James Version’s translation “synagogue of the Libertines” intends to convey the idea that the synagogue in question was a gathering place for freedmen, or former slaves (Acts 6:9). These former slaves could have obtained their freedom through a variety of means; Luke also notes that they were foreigners, which most likely is intended to indicate that they were Greek-speaking Jews whose parents had been taken into captivity and that once they had obtained their freedom they returned to Jerusalem, or their place of origin. Cilicia, the region of Tarsus and the hometown of Paul, is specifically mentioned. That Paul bore both a Roman name (Paul) and a Hebrew name (Saul) indicates that his family maintained ties with their ancestral faith. His Roman name may also reveal a servile heritage (Latin, paulus, “short” or “small”) or a connection to the influential Roman family bearing the same name, Paullus. A dispute arose in that synagogue that led to further persecution of the disciples, which may foreshadow the stoning of Stephen and Paul’s role as a witness to that event.
Stephen, the First Martyr
The first seven chapters of Acts cover a brief period, about three years (A.D. 30–33). Heightening the tension in the history, Jewish officials in Jerusalem worry about the emerging Church as highlighted in three separate trials before the Sanhedrin with increasingly hostile consequences. The first trial concluded with a stern warning to Peter and John to not “speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). The second trial ended with the same warning, but Peter and John were also beaten (5:40). Finally, the third trial ended with Stephen being summarily stoned to death (7:57–59). Luke clearly saw Stephen’s execution as part of a concentrated effort to stop Jesus’ followers from preaching, teaching, and healing in his name—-signaling the beginning of a greater persecution that forced many early believers to flee Jerusalem. The central issue that led to Stephen’s death was probably his report of having seen God (7:56) and not simply a dislike of his interpretation of scripture.
The last trial before the Sanhedrin began when “certain of the synagogue” stirred up a controversy that resulted in Stephen’s arrest and trial before the Sanhedrin (6:9–12). In this setting, Luke presents Stephen’s discourse before the council, the longest speech preserved in Acts, which most likely reveals the importance of its message to Luke and the early Church.
In this speech, Stephen criticized the continuing rejection of the Lord’s message and messengers. Although it was not an attack on the Law,/b> or the temple, it was nevertheless a strong condemnation of a lack of faith in the Lord and the Torah from the time of Joseph, who was sold into Egypt, until the present period. Stephen charged the Jewish leaders, “Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted?” (7:51–52).
Saul the Persecutor
ACTS 7:58; 8:1–3
Luke introduces Saul, later known as Paul, to his audience in the last verses of chapter 7 and the first three verses of chapter 8. Saul is portrayed as an important figure in the persecution of the Saints in Jerusalem “entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison” (Acts 8:3). He may have been involved in the debate with Stephen in the synagogue in the first place (Acts 6:9–11). We should recall that Saul was from Cilicia (Acts 21:39). He was also present when Stephen was killed (7:58). Later he led a delegation to arrest those who called upon Jesus’ name in Damascus (9:1–2).
In the face of mounting persecution in Jerusalem, many Saints were “scattered abroad,” preaching the word in the regions round about the Holy City (Acts 8:4). Luke focused his attention on the activities of Philip, who preached to the Samaritans, proselytes, and even a eunuch—-all individuals and groups marginalized in first-century Judaism. Later, Luke informs us that he met Philip (Acts 21:8–10), providing strong evidence that Luke used eyewitness sources in preparing his
two-part work (Luke 1:2). Peter and John followed in Philip’s footsteps in Samaria, conferring the Holy Ghost on those who had been baptized (8:14–25).
Saul Persecutes the Church
Luke describes Saul’s persecution of the Church as though it were a legally sanctioned action, with the caution that he was “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). Although Luke does not specifically mention it, Saul could not legally kill Christians in Damascus or in Jerusalem, which may be hinted at with the verb “breathing” (Greek, empneo¯n). Moreover, Saul sought permission from the high priest in Jerusalem (probably Caiaphas) to harass Damascus Christians. The King James Version uses the term “bound” (9:2), but historically it seems unlikely that Paul would have had the power to arrest and bind anyone. Rather, those Christians whom he found “of this way” would have to willingly submit to their excommunication and any associated punishments (Galatians 1:13).
The vision that Saul saw on the way to harass Christians powerfully changed his direction in life, as he discovered that he must follow the Lord Jesus Christ. The persecutor would soon become the persecuted. Saul’s vision appears to be different from that of his companions, of whom Luke notes, “And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man” (9:7). The story also plainly teaches that Saul had to seek further directions from the leaders of the Church in Damascus, or in other words, Saul was being called into the Church and was not to function as an independent representative of God’s power.
Acts preserves a brief outline of how outsiders described Christianity. At the beginning of this chapter, Paul refers to Christianity using the oldest known title: “this way” (9:2). Shortly thereafter, the title “Christian” was applied to what was originally another way to be Jewish (Acts 11:26), and later Christians were referred to as belonging to the “sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5).
Saul Is Healed
The otherwise unknown Ananias likewise had a vision in which he was shown Saul and what he should do for him. Luke’s abrupt introduction of Ananias into the account serves to heighten the contrast between the increasingly powerful persecutor and the humble servant of the Lord. The contrast is further emphasized when Ananias asks the Lord concerning Saul, implying that it might be prudent not to heal him (Acts 9:13–14).
The verses following Ananias’s discussion with the Lord are key to understanding Paul’s later role in the Church: Paul was baptized into the Church, thus confirming his vision on the road to Damascus. The restoration of his vision signaled the beginning of his conversion process, but baptism was still required for formal entrance into the kingdom, a point that Luke pauses to note. From the time of his conversion forward, roughly fifteen to seventeen years would pass before Paul would again enter the history of the early Church (Galatians 1:18; 2:1).
In a later epistle, Paul also commented on the persecution during his time in Damascus (Acts 9:23–25; 2 Corinthians 11:32–33). The exact reason why Aretas IV Philopatris would have sought his life is uncertain, although it may have been an extension of hostilities between Aretas and Herod Antipas over a border dispute or Herod Antipas’s divorce of Aretas’s daughter.
Peter’s Early Mission
Peter’s visit to Lydda (modern Lod) near Joppa was the setting for two healing miracles. It may be that Luke placed the account of Peter and the healings of Aeneas and Tabitha in proximity to the account of Paul’s conversion to illustrate Peter’s inspired leadership of the Church and to show how closely Peter’s own ministry now resembled that of Jesus’ during the Lord’s mortal ministry. In fact, Tabitha, like Lazarus, had been dead long enough that her body had been washed and prepared for burial, while the healing of Aeneas reminds the reader of the healing at the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:5–9). The mention of “Simon a tanner,” a person who was likely well known to the early Saints, may also reveal the source of this story.
Peter, Cornelius, and Caesarea
Luke here turns his attention to the spread of the gospel to the wider Gentile world. In this case, Peter preaches to and baptizes an uncircumcised Gentile named Cornelius. Paralleling Saul’s turnaround, Peter also experienced a complete turnaround in accepting Gentiles into the Church (Acts 10:28). The decisive moment came about only after a series of interconnected visions (10:3–6, 10–16), reminding the reader of the earlier visions of Saul and Ananias, which signaled another decisive moment in the history of the early Church (9:3–6, 10–16): Peter’s prompting by the Holy Spirit to visit Cornelius (10:19–20) and the unexpected and visible descent of the Holy Ghost upon Cornelius and his household (10:44).
It is during this significant gathering at Caesarea that Peter speaks one of the most memorable lines in the New Testament: “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (10:34–35). In that same setting Peter also describes Jesus’ ministry in some of the most beautiful words recorded in the Bible: “That word, I say, ye know, which was published throughout all Judaea, and began from Galilee, after the baptism which John preached; how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him” (10:37–38).
Additionally, Luke provides a window into the operation of the early Church in reporting this incident by demonstrating how Church policy and doctrine were established through revelation, including open visions and the promptings of the Holy Ghost. For Luke, it was important that Peter and the Church leaders in Jerusalem approve the decisive step of taking the gospel to the Gentiles, acknowledging that the Lord had accepted those they had previously believed were unacceptable to him. In other words, the gospel was intended for all people.
Moreover, the account showed the important role that
“God-fearers” played in the expansion of missionary work among Gentiles. These men, like Cornelius, attached themselves to a synagogue and were prepared for the “good news” through their study of the Septuagint (LXX), fasting, prayer, and good works.
Acknowledging the Lord’s Will
The history of Peter and Cornelius is repeated in chapter 11, when the senior apostle relates his experience in Caesarea to Church leaders in Jerusalem. Peter’s report is more about the revelation Peter received than about his decision to eat with Gentiles (Acts 11:3), marking an important change in the spiritual border that separated Jews and Gentiles in the first century. The situation is resolved when Peter informs the apostles and brethren in Jerusalem about his visions in Joppa (11:5–10); the prompting of the Holy Spirit to travel to Caesarea (11:11–12); Cornelius’s vision (11:13–14); and finally, how the Holy Ghost fell upon the uncircumcised Gentiles while he preached to them (11:15–17). Luke concludes, “When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” (11:18).
Antioch, Barnabas, and Saul
Luke turns his attention back to Barnabas and Saul as he describes what happened in Antioch on the Orontes (Acts 11:19–30). Antioch, often identified as Antioch of Syria, was considered the third most important city in the Empire after Rome and Alexandria.
In the wake of the continuing persecution in Judea, several disciples reach “Phenice [Phoenicia], and Cyprus, and Antioch” (11:19). Additionally, some unknown disciples from Cyprus introduce the good news about the “Lord Jesus” (11:20) to the Hellenists (KJV, “Grecians”), most likely Greek-speaking Gentiles living in Antioch. Luke continues, “And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord” (11:21). Church leaders in Jerusalem send Barnabas, who hailed from Cyprus (located sixty miles off the coast of Asia Minor), to continue the work begun by the unknown Cypriot -disciples.
Scholars are divided on the chronology of the events described in this chapter. Some assume that Luke might be discussing a period of between two and three years before the famine struck Judea, usually dated between A.D. 45 and 46 (with continuing effects thereafter). More commonly, scholars date the events just weeks or months before the famine, which would mean that Luke is not driven religiously by a strict chronological ordering of his account since the events described in chapter 12 (the martyrdom of James and the death of Herod Agrippa I) are dated to spring through August A.D. 44. In making this suggestion, scholars argue that Luke is interested primarily in ordering his account based on geographical concerns. Certainly, this section describes an important shift in focus of the missionary efforts—away from Jerusalem to the large cities of the Roman world and to the Gentiles.
Luke provides an interesting insertion about Barnabas at this point (11:24) and then continues his account as Barnabas leaves Antioch and travels to Tarsus to find Saul. Barnabas had been much impressed with Saul when he heard him preach in Damascus before taking him to Jerusalem where Barnabas introduced Saul to the apostles (9:27). Apparently, he did the same thing here—introduce Saul to the Church at Antioch.
Barnabas and Saul spent a year teaching and preaching in Antioch to great crowds, which must have included Gentiles. They did so here as “Christians” for the first time (11:26. This might represent a specific strategy to reach out to Gentiles who would not understand the previous designation of “the way” (9:2) used by the followers of Jesus (disciples, brothers, sisters, believers, and followers). The new term means “pertaining to or belonging to Christ.” Interestingly, it is only mentioned in one other place in the New Testament (1 Peter 4:16). Nevertheless, the designation is important as it demonstrates that the disciples were identified separately from other Jews and that such a designation was not based on ethnicity but on faith in and loyalty to Jesus. Eventually, it became the general way to identify those who accepted Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ (Messiah).
Luke again inserts a separate account when he introduces a prophet named Agabus who is mentioned later (Acts 21:10). Agabus prophesied of a famine in the Empire in c. A.D. 46 that resulted in a call to action in Antioch to help the “brethren which dwelt in Judea” (11:29), sending relief with Barnabas and Saul (11:30). Following the interlude in chapter 12, Luke focuses his attention on Antioch again, setting the stage for the so-called first mission where Barnabas and Saul covered more than 1,400 miles before retuning back to Antioch.
Herod Agrippa and James
For the first time since Herod the Great, a Jewish king ruled in Judea, Galilee, and Samaria. Herod Agrippa I (10 B.C.–A.D. 44) was Herod’s grandson and was portrayed by the Jewish historian Josephus as a strictly observant Jew who had remarkable connections and influence in Rome. Luke related that at this time, in the spring of A.D. 44 at the time of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover), the king summarily executed James and arrested Peter. Surprisingly, given James’s prominence in the Gospel of Luke (Peter, James, and John constituted the inner circle of the Twelve), Luke provides little information about James’s execution except that he was “killed with the sword” (Acts 12:2), indicating that he was likely beheaded. Immediately Luke turns his attention back to Peter, who had been arrested in the wake of James’s execution. After Peter is miraculously released from prison by an angel, he makes his way to the home of “Mary the mother of John, whose surname was Mark” (12:12) where the Church met, possibly the site of the Last Supper and the meeting where Matthias was called to the Twelve. Here Peter instructs the Saints to tell James, Jesus’ brother, what has happened. Known as James the Just, he may have been included in the group (Mary Jesus’ mother, and with his brethren) mentioned earlier in Acts 1:14. James plays a significant role in the Jerusalem Church thereafter (Acts 15:13–22; 21:18–25).
Peter then “departed, and went into another place” (12:17), signaling the beginning of Peter’s absence from Jerusalem for the rest of the account (except for the brief appearance at the Jerusalem Conference in A.D. 49; see Acts 15:7) and from Luke’s account.
For some reason, Luke decided to include the story of Herod Agrippa’s death in August A.D. 44 at Caesarea. Combining the account in Luke with the account in Josephus, scholars suggest that Agrippa died of poisoning or peritonitis. With his passing, Rome took direct control of the region, quashing Jewish nationalistic hopes for a season.
Barnabas, Saul, and Mark
In Acts 13 and 14, Luke describes the first mission beyond the eastern Mediterranean seaboard. Again, Luke provides a window into the early Church’s operations when he describes the mission call and departure of Barnabas, Saul, and Mark from Antioch in Syria (Acts 13:1–40).
The missionaries are called after the Holy Ghost has instructed, “Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them” (13:2). They are then set apart by local Church leaders: “And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away” (13:3). Luke then gives a fairly detailed account of their travels, first to the island of Cyprus and then on to what today is south central Turkey (Pamphylia, Pisidia, and Galatia). After retracing their steps, Barnabas and Saul, now known as Paul, return to Antioch in Syria where “they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles” (14:27).
During this first missionary journey described in Acts, Paul found his voice and established his missionary strategy. First, he typically preached in the synagogue on the Sabbath to Jews, proselytes, and God-fearers (13:15–16, 26), eventually attracting the attention of a wider group (13:44), resulting in some Jewish concerns about his message and activity (13:45) and thus forcing him to turn his attention to Gentiles (13:46–48).
Additionally, he seems to have taken lead of the mission from Barnabas; note that his name is mentioned first beginning in 13:13, suggesting preeminence. Luke also notes John Mark’s departure back to Jerusalem at this point without explaining why he deserted the group. A number of suggestions have been advanced, including Mark’s possible resentment that Paul took Barnabas’s (his cousin’s) leadership position; the mission had gone further than expected; and finally, Paul’s efforts to preach to the Gentiles. Later, we learn that Paul and Mark likely reconciled (2 Timothy 4:11).
The Jerusalem Conference
The Jerusalem Conference is traditionally dated to A.D. 49, a dating that is arrived at through comparative chronological considerations with the tenure of the proconsul Junius Annaeus Gallio who served in Corinth c. A.D. 51–52 (Acts 18:12). The Council of Jerusalem, or the Jerusalem Conference, was convened to settle the disconcerting issue of whether Gentile converts should be required to be circumcised (Acts 15:1), an issue that eventually led to “no small dissension and disputation with them” (15:2). A council was convened to settle the issue wherein Paul and Barnabas told of their experiences, where some “Pharisees which believed” (15:5) gave their input, and where Peter presided.
Peter had been uniquely prepared through revelation to handle the matter, having been shown in vision the Lord’s will concerning the Gentiles (10:9–16). He testified, providing a clear outline of how the Church should proceed: “Put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith” (15:9; emphasis added). Luke’s account seems to reach a conclusion at the end of Peter’s declaration. That conclusion is interrupted by James’s summary of the council’s decision: “Men and brethren, hearken unto me. . . . my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: but that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood” (15:13, 19–20). The decision effectively required two things of Gentile converts: first, they were required to follow the kosher requirement to abstain from eating blood, which accounts for the mention of strangulation, blood, and pollutions of idols (the eating of meat that had been used in a pagan sacrifice); second, new converts were required to remain chaste. It is assumed that new male converts would not be required to be circumcised, thus removing the most significant obstacle to Gentile conversions.
The decision of the council was to be announced by Paul and Barnabas through “letters,” and the effort to announce the decision accounts for the second missionary journey of Paul (15:30). The announcement of the removal of the burden of circumcision was greeted warmly in Antioch, where “they rejoiced for the consolation” (15:31), although for some this decision would have been very difficult to accept because Judaism was more than a religion; it also provided them with a national identity. Therefore, in some instances the line between tradition and law was almost impossible to determine.
Paul and Barnabas Part Ways
Luke attributes the origin of the contention between Paul and Barnabas to a lingering issue over John’s actions on the first missionary journey when John had left them near Perga in Asia (Acts 13:13). The two disciples separated, with Barnabas returning to Cyprus to announce the council’s decision and Paul returning to Cilicia and the northern parts of the first mission to announce the decision of the Jerusalem Council. Although both men remained faithful, the rift between them was significant enough to cause them to part ways for a time.
During the so-called second mission, or better, the Aegean mission journey, described in 15:35–18:32, Paul traveled some twenty-eight hundred miles. In Acts 16, Luke provides the story of another significant expansion in Paul’s efforts—this time the crossing of another important physical boundary between Asia and Europe.
Paul provides a glimpse into his life on the road in one of his letters to the Corinthian Saints when he details some of the hardships he has endured “in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:23–28).
Beginning with this section, Luke concentrates exclusively on Paul for the rest of his narrative, providing us an important window into his missionary efforts. Regrettably, however, Luke at the same time pulled down the shades on other individuals and events that would be of great interest to the modern student of the early Church.
Luke informs his readers that Paul and Silas traveled to “Derbe and Lystra” where they recruited “Timotheus,” better known simply as Timothy, to join them (Acts 16:1). Revealing Paul’s practical nature, he asked Timothy to submit to circumcision “because of the Jews which were in those quarters: for they knew all that his father was a Greek” and his mother was a Jew (16:3). Paul continued his effort in spreading the news of the important apostolic decree from the Jerusalem Conference that Gentile converts were not required to submit to circumcision (16:4).
As the missionary team traveled westward, they were “forbidden of the Holy Ghost to preach the word in Asia” (16:6). As a result, they decided to head toward Bithynia (the region near the Black Sea), but again the Spirit instructed them to change direction (16:7). One can only imagine the group’s perplexity as they traveled for several hundred miles toward some uncertain destination. Eventually they made their way toward Troas—known as Troas Alexandria, which in antiquity was located on the west coast of Asia. If we assume the group was in northern Galatia at the time, it would have taken about six weeks to get to Troas, a journey of nearly five hundred miles. By this time, Paul may have been seeking medical help, which may explain how he met Luke, identified as a physician by Paul (Colossians 4:14).
In Troas, an important event transpired that ended any questions the group may have had about direction. Luke noted: “And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us” (Acts 16:9). When Luke continues his narrative, he introduces the famous “we” passages. Traditionally understood as an indication that Luke was present when the event in the account occurred, these passages are made obvious as he moves from third-person singular to first-person plural. If this proposition is correct, it would go a long way in explaining how Luke obtained so much information about Paul and perhaps why he focused his narrative on Paul’s missionary efforts. Luke continues, “And after he had seen the vision, immediately we endeavoured to go into Macedonia, assuredly gathering that the Lord had called usfor to preach the gospel unto them. Therefore loosing from Troas, we came with a straight course to Samothracia, and the next day to Neapolis; and from thence to Philippi, which is the chief city of that part of Macedonia, and a colony: and we were in that city abiding certain days” (16:10–12; emphasis added).
Crossing into Europe, Paul immediately looked for an opportunity to establish a church and did so through the conversion of Lydia, “a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, which worshipped God” (16:14). Apparently a “God-fearer,” she accepted the message and “was baptized, and her household” (16:15). Her larger-than-average home became the house-church in the city. Luke describes another “sign and wonder” when he records an account of an evil spirit being cast out of a young slave woman, “which brought her masters much gain by soothsaying” (16:16). Angry at the loss of their income, her owners forcibly took Paul and Silas (note that the “we” passages end here) to the city leaders who summarily beat and threw them into prison (16:16–24). Paul mentions the incident explicitly in 1 Thessalonians 2:2 and possibly implicitly in 2 Corinthians 11:33.
Describing another miraculous prison escape, Luke reports the conversion of the jailer (16:25–33). When the city magistrates decide to let Paul go, he asks, “They have beaten us openly uncondemned, being Romans, and have cast us into prison; and now do they thrust us out privily [secretly]?” (16:37). The news that they had beaten and imprisoned Roman citizens sent the officials looking for cover because it was illegal to do so without a trial. Sometime later, the missionaries, without Luke, departed from Philippi to continue their missionary journey farther west.
Paul Teaches in Thessalonica and Berea
Paul’s vision of the man from Macedonia (Acts 16:9) eventually led him into Greece, specifically to the predominantly Greek-speaking city of Thessalonica, “where was a synagogue of the Jews” (17:1). Following the practice of teaching Jews first and Gentiles second, Paul taught in the synagogue there, of which from Luke’s narrative it appears that there was only one, thus indicating that there was perhaps only a small Jewish community in the city. Paul’s core message and the techniques he used are provided: “And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days he reasoned with them out of the
scriptures, opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ” (17:2–3; emphasis added).
That Paul focused his message on proving Jesus to be the Christ (“Messiah”) from the scriptures demonstrates the uniquely Jewish makeup of the audience, which in turn helps interpret Luke’s phrase “and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few” (17:4). The “devout Greeks” in this verse must either be assimilated Jews who had become influential in civic affairs or, more likely, Greeks who had converted to Judaism. In either case, they found Paul’s reasoned approach to the gospel credible.
In a complaint against Paul and those who had converted, some other Jews of that same synagogue reported that the teaching of the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus Christ constituted the worship of another king (17:7). Luke, who wrote some time after this event had occurred, adds the legal consideration that such a teaching was “contrary to the decrees of Caesar” (17:7). Rome permitted wide religious freedom, including the worship of national gods, with the requirement that citizens demonstrate allegiance to Rome. Jews could openly worship Jehovah without breaking this “decree,” and it may be that Luke has in mind later decrees that specifically outlawed the worship of Jesus Christ, although it is possible that their complaint is simply a perverted attempt to persecute Christians. As a part of this conspiracy, Jason and other brethren were arrested. Luke does not report what charges, if any, were brought against them.
Paul fled the city at the beginning of this slanderous inquiry and traveled to Berea, a city not far to the south of Thessalonica. Luke gives a brief report of Paul’s success in Berea, noting that “these were more noble than those in Thessalonica” (17:11). The persecutors of Thessalonica, however, pursue Paul to Berea and Paul is forced to flee again, this time using a ruse—feigning a trip by sea—but then traveling due south to Athens. Silas and Timothy remained behind in Berea, thus indicating that the persecution had focused more on Paul rather than on all those who taught the gospel message.
Paul in Athens
Paul’s trip to Athens appears to have been necessitated by the persecutions in Berea and Thessalonica rather than by choice. Luke reports Paul’s attempt to teach in the synagogue and indicates that he had no success. The most notable event Luke reports is Paul’s speech given on Mars Hill, translated as the “Areopagus” in the King James Version. Located in the shadow of the Parthenon, Mars Hill was a place of public assembly and the city’s official tribunal, where on this occasion Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, as well as others, met. Luke may have noted only the Stoics and Epicureans for dramatic effect rather than historical, to highlight the difference between Greek intellectual traditions and the sublime truths of the gospel, which are felt rather than grasped solely through reason. In fact, the accounts of Paul’s teachings in Thessalonica and Berea may have anticipated Athens when Luke emphasized in those accounts a reasoned approach to teaching the gospel.
Luke’s report reveals little tolerance for the Athenian intellectual environment, which in these short verses is referred to as “idolatry” and “superstitious” while the Athenians “spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing” (17:21). In particular, Paul noted the altar “to the Unknown God” (17:23), which is known from other references outside the New Testament as being an altar to the unknowable god or to all gods that are not specifically known by name (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana 6.3). The Athenians maintained an altar to the gods not known to prevent their inadvertently offending deity in any way. Paul made an object lesson out of the altar, boldly saying to his Athenian listeners, “whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you” (17:23). Rather than attempt to find commonality with the Athenian plurality of gods, Paul testifies to the singularity of God as well as God’s role as Creator in light of Stoic and Epicurean intellectual antimaterialism.
In this famous sermon, Paul demonstrates familiarity with the poet Aratus, whom he quotes, possibly in an effort to find common ground: “For we are also his offspring” (Aratus, Phenomena 5). At the center of Paul’s teachings, and indeed the most controversial concept in his speech from Mars Hill, was the doctrine of the resurrection, which “some mocked” because it emphasized the eternal nature of the material body, which the Athenian intellectuals could not accept. Paul, however, did gain some converts on that day: “Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them” (17:34).
Following his effort in Athens, Paul headed to Corinth, a logical choice given its size (about eighty thousand inhabitants) and prominent geographical position on a narrow isthmus that linked Achaia to the Peloponnese. We do not know if Paul traveled by land or sea, but either way it would have taken between two and three days to make the journey from Athens. So far, Paul has been on the road some twenty weeks, having traveled about twenty-two hundred miles from Antioch to Corinth.
Unlike his visits to Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea, where he had been chased out of town, Paul stayed at least eighteen months, maybe longer, in Corinth (Acts 18:11). This allowed him to establish a routine that Luke has preserved for us—an important description of Paul’s ministry in the Roman colony.
At the beginning of the account, Luke introduces his audience to Aquila and Priscilla, Jewish-Christians who had recently arrived from Rome in the wake of the expulsion of some Jewish and Christian leaders by Claudius, dated about A.D. 49. Paul, Aquila, and Priscilla discover they share the same occupation; we learn here for the first time that Paul was a leather worker (KJV, “tentmakers”; the tents were likely made of leather [18:3]). The three also have a mutual witness that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, and all this provides a basis for an immediate friendship. Eventually they establish a house-church in their apartment and become an important missionary team in Corinth and later in Rome.
As was his practice, Paul “reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks” (18:4); eventually he pressed the Jews in Corinth, testifying that “Jesus was Christ” (18:5). When opposition arose and the Jews “opposed themselves, and blasphemed” (18:6), he vowed that “from henceforth I will go unto the Gentiles” and moved his work to a location adjacent to the synagogue. Additionally, Paul baptized Crispus (1 Corinthians 1:14), the chief ruler of the synagogue, bringing into the fold an important Jewish leader (18:8).
Most scholars assume that Paul wrote his famous letters to the Thes-salonians from Corinth after receiving reports from Silas and Timothy, who finally met up with Paul again in this important commercial city (18:5). In Corinth, Paul had another vision (18:9). However, this time he is told to stay instead of to depart (18:9). Additionally, the Lord promised Paul that he would be protected and that he had “much people in this city” (18:10).
Eventually, Jewish agitators took Paul to appear before Lucius Iunius Gallio, the Roman proconsul (18:12–17). Fortunately, we are in a position to provide a rather precise date for Paul’s stay based on an inscription found at Delphi regarding Gallio, which dates his proconsulship between spring A.D. 51–52. This suggests that Paul was there between A.D. 49–52. This is one of the few dates regarding Paul which has a general consensus among scholars.
The importance of Paul’s appearance before Gallio is significant. The Roman government, through Gallio, decided that the Christians had not broken any Roman law and that they remained under the legal protection offered other Jews—they were seen simply as a subgroup within Judaism. This was a landmark decision and most likely the reason why Luke mentions it.
We gain additional information about Paul’s stay in Corinth from his own correspondence (1 and 2 Corinthians).
Return to the Aegean Mission
Paul’s so-called third missionary journey (Acts 18:23–21:15) took him some twenty-seven hundred miles. When he left Cenchrea, one of the two seaports of Corinth—the Aegean side in this case—he took Priscilla and Aquila with him. Additionally, Luke informs his readers that Paul shaved his head in preparation to begin a vow. Most likely it was a Nazarite vow (Numbers 6:1–21), which entailed that a person not cut his hair for a specific period of time. At the conclusion of the period, the person offered the previously unshorn hair as an offering at the Jerusalem temple. That Paul continued to worship in forms familiar to other Jews should not surprise anyone. However, there is nothing in the account that can help us fully understand his position on the Torah and the temple. Rather, Luke presents a complex picture of Paul’s attitudes about the Torah and the temple that does not allow us to pigeonhole Paul into a neat, tidy box.
Luke continues his sketch: “And he came to Ephesus, and left them there: but he himself entered into the synagogue, and reasoned with the Jews. When they desired him to tarry longer time with them, he consented not; But bade them farewell, saying, I must by all means keep this feast that cometh in Jerusalem: but I will return again unto you, if God will. And he sailed from Ephesus. And when he had landed at Caesarea, and gone up, and saluted the church [in Jerusalem], he went down to Antioch. And after he had spent some time there, he departed, and went over all the country of Galatia and Phrygia in order, strengthening all the disciples” (18:19–23).
What continues to baffle scholars is why Luke leaves us in the dark on the purpose and outcome of his trip to Jerusalem and Antioch; the distance between the two is about 250 miles. Numerous attempts to clarify the significance of these visits and the possible outcomes fail to adequately explain Luke’s short report, even if we use Paul’s own letters to fill in details. The evidence is so fragmentary that it may be impossible to discover Paul’s original intent. This was not Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem, and fortunately Luke is more helpful in providing us details to make some sense of Paul’s later visit (Acts 20–21).
In Acts 18, Luke introduces Apollos, an Alexandrian Jew, who arrives in Ephesus. Apollos is described as “an eloquent man, and mighty in the scriptures . . . instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in the spirit, he spake and taught diligently the things of the Lord,” but “knowing only the baptism of John” he had not yet fully come to a proper understanding of who Jesus was and what Jesus offered, including the Holy Spirit (18:24–25). Aquila and Priscilla “took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly” (18:26). Now armed with a more complete understanding of Jesus’ mission, he is sent by the Church in Ephesus to Corinth with a letter of recommendation. In Corinth, Apollos preached, “for he mightily convinced the Jews, and that publickly, shewing by the scriptures that Jesus was Christ” (18:28). Apollos became an influential teacher in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1–4).
Paul makes his way to Ephesus at the beginning of this section where an account is given of people who had accepted the baptism of John. Paul told them, “John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus” (19:4). Many of them were then “baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” and received the Holy Ghost (19:5–6), thus implying that their previous baptism was insufficient.
As was his custom, Paul enters the local synagogue in Ephesus and “spake boldly for the space of three months, disputing and persuading the things concerning the kingdom of God” (19:8). Eventually, Paul is forced to find another location in which to teach: “And this continued by the space of two years; so that all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (19:10). Paul’s ministry of healing continues in Ephesus (19:11–12), an aspect of Paul’s work that Luke highlights in some detail throughout the book of Acts (see, for example, 13:9–11; 14:8–10; 16:16–18; 28:8). Luke also preserves a rather humorous story about the “seven sons of one Sceva, a Jew,” who attempt to cast out an evil spirit only to have the spirit respond, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye?” At that point, “the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, and overcame them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded” (19:14–16). We also learn from Luke’s narrative that Paul’s ultimate goal was to preach in Rome (19:21).
Paul’s missionary success was so great in Ephesus and elsewhere that Paul “persuaded and turned away much people, saying that they be no gods, which are made with hands” (19:26). Those connected with the temple of Diana (known as the Temple of Artemis and one of the seven ancient wonders of the world) were concerned about the economic impact of his ministry and eventually raised a tumult. A large mob gathered in the theater that still stands in Ephesus today, shouting for two hours, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians” (19:34). Eventually the “townclerk” persuaded the crowd to disperse by reminding them that the Romans would consider the assembly illegal and would punish them—Pax Romana must be maintained.
Paul Raises Eutychus from the Dead
Paul’s return through Greece and Macedonia would have permitted him occasion to write, and it is possible that while in Greece, where he “abode three months” (Acts 20:5), he may have written his letter to the Roman Saints. As Luke reports, Paul’s travel plans had to be adjusted to avoid persecution from the Jews of Greece and Macedonia. Very little is known of his seven missionary companions, except for Timothy.
The mention of breaking bread on “the first day of the week” refers to a Sunday celebration of the sacrament and not to the continued celebration of the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday (Acts 20:7). After celebrating the sacrament, Paul spoke long into the night, hinting that this was a farewell -discourse. While Paul was speaking, “a certain young man named Eutychus” fell asleep and tumbled through an open window, causing his death (20:9). The young man, whose name means “good fortune,” was raised from the dead by Paul. The incident of bringing one back to life establishes a line of priesthood authority from Jesus to Peter to Paul. By recounting this story here, Luke may also be hinting at Paul’s position in the Church in light of Peter’s absence from the story.
Paul’s Farewell Discourse
Luke again uses the first-person plural “we” in describing Paul’s return trip to Jerusalem, thus indicating an eyewitness source or perhaps even Luke’s own participation in these events (Acts 20:13). From the list of cities, it is apparent that Paul was making his way toward Miletus, about thirty-five miles south of Ephesus, where he hoped to depart by ship so he could arrive in Jerusalem by Pentecost or fifty days after Passover (20:16).
Paul’s farewell speech, recorded in verses 18–35, is personal and introspective. Paul clearly has the end of his life in sight, discussing his life in past perspective and not from the present looking toward the future only. Some phrases indicate that Paul has had some revelatory experience concerning his own fate: “I might finish my course with joy” (20:24), but you “shall see my face no more” (20:25), “after my departing” (20:29), and “now, brethren, I commend you to God” (20:32). Paul also warns the Saints, “Of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (20:30), testifying of the beginning of the internal and eventual apostasy that had begun to take shape.
Luke concludes with what constitutes Paul’s final farewell scene with the members he had worked with since the time of his early mission into Greece and Macedonia: “And they all wept sore, and fell on Paul’s neck, and kissed him, sorrowing most of all for the words which he spake, that they should see his face no more” (20:37–38), conveying not only the sentiments of the Ephesian Saints but probably Luke’s own feelings as well. To comfort the Saints, Paul draws upon an otherwise unknown saying of Jesus, referred to frequently as an agrapha (defined by Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary as “one of the sayings of Jesus not in the canonical Gospels but found in other New Testament or early Christian writings”): “Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive” (20:35).
The Final Visit to Jerusalem
Often identified as the “passion of Paul,” the last eight chapters of Acts focus on Paul’s final journey to Jerusalem, his two-year incarceration in Caesarea, and his perilous journey to Rome. Luke finds an interesting parallel in Jesus’ last journey to Jerusalem and that of Paul’s. The details in both accounts are remarkably similar, including the decision to go to Jerusalem, the hearing before a Jewish council, the appearance before a Roman governor, and the hearing before a Jewish king. This narrative is about one-fourth of the total text in Acts.
The journey continues when Paul and his traveling companions arrive in Tyre, located in modern Lebanon, where they find disciples “who said to Paul through the Spirit, that he should not go up to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:4). Nevertheless, Paul is determined to deliver the collection for the poor Saints in Judea to James in the Holy City. That collection appears to have been intended to alleviate the suffering of the Saints in Jerusalem, who had suffered from food shortages under the Emperor Claudius. Luke adds, “And when we had accomplished those days, we departed and went our way; and they all brought us on our way, with wives and children, till we were out of the city: and we kneeled down on the shore, and prayed. And when we had taken our leave one of another, we took ship” (21:5–6).
The next stop on their journey is Ptolemais, modern Acco in northern Israel. After greeting the Church, the party travels to Caesarea where they stay with Philip and his daughters (21:8–9). This fortuitous visit with Philip provides Luke another opportunity to gather an eyewitness account of the history of the early days of the Church (Acts 6:1–5; 8:5–13, 26–40).
Agabus, mentioned earlier (11:28), appears in Caesarea to deliver a dire warning: “And when he was come unto us, he took Paul’s girdle, and bound his own hands and feet, and said, Thus saith the Holy Ghost, So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man that owneth this girdle, and shall deliver him into the hands of theGentiles” (21:11). Those present plead with Paul not to continue on to Jerusalem. “Then Paul answered, What mean ye to weep and to break mine heart? for I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus. And when he would not be persuaded, we ceased, saying, The will of the Lord be done” (21:13–14).
“After those days” (21:15), Paul and his party traveled to Jerusalem, where Luke reports, “the brethren received us gladly” (21:17). On the -following day, they meet with “James; and all the elders were present” (21:18). Again, this important meeting may have provided Luke another opportunity to obtain crucial information about Jesus’ birth and early years from Jesus’ brother, James (Luke 1–2).
James’s report to Paul about the Church provides us remarkable insight into the situation in Jerusalem. First, the Church was strong with “many thousands” of Jewish converts (21:20). Second, these converts were “all zealous of the law” (21:20). Finally, Paul was thought by some Jewish adherents to be an “apostate,” one who encouraged other Jews to desert the faith (21:21).
In order to dispel the notion that Paul had abandoned the Lord, the Torah, and the temple, James asks Paul to prove his piety by going to the temple. He agrees, but during his visit to the temple, some Jews from Asia spotted him and “stirred up all the people, and laid hands on him, crying out, Men of Israel, help: This is the man, that teacheth all men every where against the people, and the law, and this place: and further brought Greeks also into the temple, and hath polluted this holy place” (21:27–28). Such a charge, that he had defiled the temple by bringing a Gentile into the sacred precinct, causes a crowd to run together and take Paul outside of the temple in order to kill him. (21:30–31). The question of whether Paul had been set up by going to the temple or if James was used by manipulative instigators is a valid one, and the fact that Paul was arrested for Trophimus’s infraction leads to the conclusion that someone with wicked designs had orchestrated the event.
The Roman soldiers, who are watching from the Antonia fortress, which is connected to the Temple Mount on the north side, quickly intervene and rescue Paul from certain death. As the soldiers descend into the court of the Gentiles, the crowd disperses, leaving a roughed—up Paul. The soldiers immediately bind him and lead him to the Antonia Fortress. As they move to the safety of the fortress, Paul speaks to the Roman chief captain in Greek, who is surprised that Paul speaks Greek (21:37). Paul then asks permission to address the angry crowd. Rather dramatically, Paul motions to the crowd to listen, and when they do, he speaks to them in Aramaic (21:40). The next chapter contains his speech.
Paul’s Appeal to the People
Acts 22 details Paul’s personal defense of his ministry and teachings to Judean Jews, which is reported to have been given in “the Hebrew tongue” or, more properly, Aramaic (Acts 22:2). Paul’s account of his upbringing and training in Jerusalem under the famed Pharisee Gamaliel point out the irony of the charges brought against him: Gamaliel was a known moderate and earlier had argued against prosecuting Christians (Acts 5:34–40). Paul testifies of otherwise unknown actions that are also implied in Acts 9:2: “And I persecuted this way unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women” (22:4). Unless Paul is referring to Stephen in this verse, it is unlikely that he actually killed Christians, and the binding and delivering of Christians to prisons must refer to actions in Judea before his trip to Damascus and to Jewish tribunals rather than Roman prisons. In fact, the Romans protect Paul from the Jews.
Paul’s account of his vision here matches the earlier account in Acts 9 with some minor differences in detail (the most significant differences have to do with the men who traveled with Paul). It is important to note that the differences in the two stories are less significant than the commonalities, which present an enduring story that did not suffer from a variety of retellings. Some details of the events following his vision are also reported. Specifically, Paul describes a vision in the temple, which must have taken place nearly three years after his first vision, (Galatians 1:18) in which Jesus had commanded Paul to teach the gospel to the Gentiles (22:21).
The entire speech focuses on revelation as a means of authorization. Having seen and heard the Lord and participated in appropriate priesthood ordinances (22:16), Paul is authorized to teach the gospel. This emphasis on revelation may have been necessary given the status of the Church in the decade beginning in A.D. 50 when this event took place and when the apostles had departed from Jerusalem. The people here are not specifically Jews or Christians, but rather a crowd that interprets Paul’s teachings as blasphemous by casting off their clothes (their outer cloak) and throwing dust into the air (22:23). It may be that Luke intended to leave the identity of this audience ambiguous because it likely included Christians who continued to oppose Paul.
The chief captain is a Roman military officer (Greek, xiliarxos, “captain of six hundred to one thousand men”) who ordered that Paul be brought into the “castle” (22:24) or military barracks (Greek, parembole¯, “barracks” or “camp”). Their intent was to scourge Paul to determine any guilt, but probably more specifically as a punishment for instigating a riot. Paul appeals to an officer below the chief captain (Greek, hekatontarxon, “captain of one hundred men”), citing his Roman citizenship and the fact that he should not be scourged as a slave or as a noncitizen would be. The chief captain appears incredulous that Paul is a Roman citizen, and Paul would have been required to produce physical proof of his citizenship in the form of official documents. Following the treatment accorded to citizens, Paul was given the opportunity to confront his accusers the day following this event.
Paul Defends His Ministry to the Council
Surprisingly, Paul has no one to defend him, thus hinting at a Jewish takeover of the Christian community in Jerusalem or an almost absolute suppression of Christianity in the city. One would expect that the dispute mentioned in these verses would be between Christians and Jews, but Luke reports it rather as a division between Sadducees and Pharisees (Acts 23:6). Moreover, Ananias is permitted to physically abuse Paul, something that Paul’s Roman guards were unwilling to do upon learning that he was a citizen (23:2). Legally it seems that Ananias had no authority over Paul unless Paul willingly submitted himself to Ananias’s command. In other words, Paul most likely permitted the questioning reported here.
Unfortunately, no primary sources exist detailing the Sadducees’ beliefs, and the mention that they do not believe in the “resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit” (23:8) is left unexplained. Their defense of their belief is so spirited that the inquiry into Paul’s teachings takes second place to their dispute over the Resurrection. Luke sees no difficulty in reporting Paul’s ruse. Again, it is the Romans who protect Paul, likely indicating that Luke was writing at a time when the Jews were viewed as a greater threat than Roman anti-Christian legislation.
Mentioned only here, Paul’s nephew (23:16) had learned of a conspiracy to kill Paul, which he made known to Paul and which led to the news being relayed to his Roman guards. Although the Romans were in control of the legal process of trying Paul, this account makes it apparent that the Jews had learned to manipulate that system for their own purposes (23:14). That the chief captain took the information from Paul’s nephew to represent a credible threat shows a contrast between how the Pharisees and Sadducees reacted out of hate while the Romans carefully considered witnesses and acted accordingly. Roughly 470 soldiers accompanied Paul to his place of imprisonment at Caesarea Maritima, unless Luke intended to indicate that the 200 hundred spearmen were the same as the 200 soldiers under the direction of the centurions (23:23).
The chapter concludes with what appears to be a private copy of a letter from Claudius Lysias to the governor (Greek, he¯gemo¯n). Claudius’s soldiers executed the order given to them and delivered Paul safely to a prison on the Mediterranean coast where the governor of Jerusalem would typically reside. Herod Antipas maintained a palace at Caesarea Maritima, where it is likely that the Roman governors resided when not officiating in matters in Jerusalem. Luke reports that Paul, while in Roman custody, was held in Herod’s prison (Greek, praito¯rio¯n, “guard” or “residence”).
Ananias Brings Charges against Paul
Tertullus, a Roman attorney and professional orator and one whom the Jews believed could plead their case better than they, follows the standard practice of extolling the virtues of the Roman governor before making any formal requests. The specific charges brought against Paul are that he is “a pestilent fellow,” or more specifically, one who teaches against the Jewish law (Acts 24:5), a leader of a seditious group called the Nazarenes (24:5), and has profaned the temple (24:6), probably referring to the event described in Acts 21:28–29.
Following the practice of indulging the conscience of his interrogator before presenting his defense, Paul specifically addresses their accusations, stating that even though the crimes of which he has been accused are only twelve days past (24:11), there are yet no credible witnesses who saw him profane the temple. Moreover, Paul similarly defends himself against the charge that he had instigated a riot by stating that there are no witnesses to such an act. Finally, as to the charge of breaking the law, Paul testifies that he too worships the God of Israel. Paul then offers an explanation of why charges have been brought against him by stating that he believes it is because he teaches the Resurrection (24:15, 17). Paul also offers as evidence that he is not anti-Jewish by declaring that he has in the past delivered “alms to my nation, and offerings” (24:17).
Felix Hopes for a Bribe
After hearing the accusations brought against Paul as well as his defense, Felix (procurator of Judea A.D. 52–60) holds Paul in custody, hoping to receive money to secure his release. Felix was roundly despised by Judeans, and contemporary accounts of him reveal that he sought bribes on other occasions (Josephus, Antiquities 20.162) while other accounts show that rioting had broken out under his tenure (Josephus, War 2.270). Felix was replaced by Porcius Festus (procurator of Judea A.D. 59–62), who appears to have been more evenhanded in his treatment of Paul, and Josephus likewise treats him with respect (Antiquities 20.8.9–11). Luke’s statement that Porcius Festus was willing to show the Jews a favor by keeping Paul imprisoned may also reflect the time that it took Festus to reinterview the witnesses before making any decision in the matter.
Leading Jews Request That Paul Be Tried
After Festus’s arrival in the province, the Jews again asked that Paul be sentenced for his supposed crimes. Acts 25:2 contains a textual variant, and although the King James Version reads, “the high priest and the chief of the Jews,” it is more likely, based on other surviving New Testament manuscripts, that the text as Luke wrote it read “leading Jews,” so that the conspiracy was not necessarily instigated by the high priest himself. Under Festus the charges against Paul were renewed, although with the added claim that Paul was somehow anti-Caesar in his teachings. Paul vigorously defended himself against such a claim (25:8). Festus, for whatever reason, asked Paul if he would accept a trial in Jerusalem, which Paul interpreted to be a death sentence.
Paul’s request that he be granted the rights of a Roman citizen and be tried by the emperor (Nero, December A.D. 37–June A.D. 68) is clearly stated in Acts, but the legality of such a request is somewhat unclear based on the surviving judiciary evidence. Festus sought Agrippa’s advice on the matter, although Marcus Julius Agrippa (also referred to as Herod Agrippa II, king of Judea A.D. 52), son of Herod Agrippa, was unlikely to judge favorably on Paul’s behalf given the Herodian family’s historical anti-Christian actions. Bernice, Agrippa’s sister, accompanied him for the hearing (25:13).
We should like to be more informed about Paul’s attitudes toward his Roman captors and Agrippa. However, while Festus makes a somewhat lengthy aside on Roman judicial procedure, the reader is left to wonder at the justice of the proceedings. Festus appears to sense this problem and states that it would be difficult to send Paul to Rome for trial without specific charges (25:27).
Paul’s Testimony before Marcus Julius Agrippa
In testifying before Agrippa, Paul chose a different tack in his defense, drawing instead from his past as a faithful Pharisee and devout Jew concepts that he believed Agrippa could comprehend (Acts 26:3). Paul even refers to Agrippa as an expert in Jewish matters, suggesting that Paul felt the charges against him pertained solely to matters of Jewish law. Paul’s defense is to describe himself as thoroughly Jewish, and to do so he relates his past as a persecutor of Christians. Paul even implies that he was at one time much like his accusers: “having received authority from the chief priests” (26:10), he punished Christians who attended their local Jewish synagogues (26:11). In other words, Paul at one time saw Christianity through the eyes of the chief priests, or at least through the eyes of a Pharisaic opponent to Christianity. Underlying Paul’s defense is his belief that the teaching of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead has caused the charges to be brought against him, and Paul concedes that he once thought such a belief was incredible (26:8–9).
Paul cites the witness he received while journeying towards Damascus, the implications of which Agrippa would understand but which would be entirely unconvincing to Festus. In recounting his vision and subsequent conversion, Paul passes over his baptism and Ananias’s healing his blindness, probably in an attempt to avoid the previous accusations that he had been an agitator among the Nazarenes. Instead, in this telling of the story, Paul emphasizes his divine commission to witness to the Gentiles (26:17) and therefore his calling as a prophet following Old Testament models. Paul specifically testifies that he had been commanded of God to deliver the message: “That Christ should suffer, and that he should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should shew light unto the people, and to the Gentiles” (26:23).
Festus interprets Paul’s testimony from the standpoint of a philosophical defense of his beliefs, which he believes is an indication that Paul had lost his mind (26:24). Realizing that his defense was being judged by the wrong ears, Paul again addresses Agrippa, asking how he understands the matter. Agrippa responds famously, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” (26:28), probably indicating his legal opinion concerning Paul’s defense and not necessarily something he feels. In other words, Agrippa agrees that Paul’s defense is credible to the point that one might even be persuaded to become a Christian. Agrippa pursues this line of thinking by stating, “This man doeth nothing worthy of death or of bonds. Then said Agrippa unto Festus, This man might have been set at liberty, if he had not appealed unto Caesar” (26:31–32). Luke concludes Paul’s defense, ironically stating that Paul’s own request to be heard by Caesar is what cost him his freedom.
Luke began Acts by recording Jesus’ commission to the disciples: “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Now, in the final chapters, the commission is completed. It began with an account of the earliest days of the Church in Jerusalem (1–5), expanded to Judea and Samaria (6–12), and then to Antioch (13–15), and from there to the Aegean (16–20), and now finally the expanding circle is completed when Paul arrives in Rome where he preached “the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him” (28:31).
In what many believe to be one of the most detailed ancient sea-travel narratives, Luke provides a dramatic and
fast-paced story of Paul’s departure from Caesarea and his journey to Rome, focusing more on natural dangers (the sea and a snake) instead of on human conspiracies to beat, imprison, and kill Paul. Unlike his earlier abbreviated descriptions of Paul’s voyages, Luke provides detailed information about ships, cargo, ports, destinations, and winds in this narrative (because the journey is long, and each factor plays a significant role in the drama we are about to read).
The “we” passages begin again as Paul departs Caesarea: “And when it was determined that we should sail into Italy, they delivered Paul and certain other prisoners unto one named Julius, a centurion of Augustus’ band. And entering into a ship of Adramyttium, we launched, meaning to sail by the coasts of Asia; one Aristarchus, a Macedonian of Thessalonica, being with us. And the next day we touched at Sidon. And Julius courteously entreated Paul, and gave him liberty to go unto his friends to refresh himself. And when we had launched from thence, we sailed under Cyprus, because the winds were contrary. And when we had sailed over the sea of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we came to Myra, a city of Lycia” (Acts 27:1–5; emphasis added).
One can only wonder where Luke was during Paul’s
two-year confinement when the “we” passages disappear, only to reappear at this critical moment. Was he conducting research for his two-part work? Interviewing eyewitnesses? Was he visiting places of interest in Jerusalem and on the roads between the Holy City and Joppa and Caesarea? Whatever the explanation may be, beginning in chapter 27, Luke and Paul are apparently together again as they make their way toward Rome. Additionally, Luke informs his readers that Aristarchus from Thessalonica is also present (Colossians 4:10; Philemon 1:24).
Paul was by now a seasoned traveler, both on land and sea. He certainly must have known that the trip to the Roman capital from one of its farthest outposts was not going to be easy. Additionally, he must have wondered about his reception in Rome—a place he had wanted to visit for some time but had not been instrumental in founding any of the house-churches there. Rome had been his goal and now the journey had begun.
When the Roman officer “found a ship of Alexandria sailing into Italy” (27:6), Paul and the other prisoners were placed on board. It was most likely a grain ship bound for Rome, which had originated in Alexandria. Egypt had become the breadbasket for Rome with ships plying their way between the two cities on a regular basis.
We soon discover, however, that the trip was taken late in the sailing season (which ran between May 27 and September 14). As a result, we should expect rough seas ahead. Luke’s mention of the fast most likely refers to the Day of Atonement (Hebrew, Yom Kippur) observed between late September and early October. If the journey began in A.D. 59, the celebration was held on October 5, well beyond the season. Nevertheless, traveling was still possible even though the Mediterranean was volatile. However, after November 11 few people dared to make an open sea journey. The few who were willing to risk the treacherous seas did so because of the extraordinary high profit margin that a winter grain delivery would ensure in Rome.
There is an ominous sense right from the beginning that this journey will not be a simple one. Paul was no stranger to the dangers associated with sea travel, as he had been shipwrecked three times already (2 Corinthians 11:25). As an experienced sea traveler himself and with prophetic insight, Paul knows that a storm is on the horizon: “Sirs, I perceive that this voyage will be with hurt and much damage, not only of the lading and ship, but also our lives” (Acts 27:10).
An Angel and a Storm
The ship captain, the owner, and the centurion decided to disregard Paul’s warning and left the safe harbor of Fair Havens at Crete. As the party made its way to a more commodious harbor, the gentle southwestern soon gave way to “a tempestuous wind” literally “typhonic,” a northeaster called Euroclydon (Acts 27:14).
In what is the last mention of a heavenly manifestation in Luke’s writings, Luke wrote, “But after long abstinence Paul stood forth in the midst of them, and said, Sirs, ye should have hearkened unto me, and not have loosed from Crete, and to have gained this harm and loss. And now I exhort you to be of good cheer: for there shall be no loss of any man’s life among you, but of the ship. For there stood by me this night the angel of God, whose I am, and whom I serve, Saying, Fear not, Paul; thou must be brought before Caesar: and, lo, God hath given thee all them that sail with thee [276 people were aboard]. Wherefore, sirs, be of good cheer: for I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me” (27:21–25).
As the storm continued to grow more violent, nothing the crew did seemed to make the situation any better. There is simply no place to hide in a storm at sea. The ship had drifted some five hundred miles when it finally ran aground and began to break up. At this point, the soldiers decided to kill the prisoners in order to prevent their escape (Acts 27:42). This should not surprise us since Roman soldiers were continually in the business of killing people. In this case, if any prisoner escaped, the soldier would not simply be demoted in rank; he would be killed instead. Luke wrote, “But the centurion, willing to save Paul, kept them from their purpose; and commanded that they which could swim should cast themselves first into the sea, and get to land: and the rest, some on boards, and some on broken pieces of the ship. And so it came to pass, that they escaped all safe to land” (27:43–44).
On the Island of Malta
The party landed on Malta, a small island some eighteen miles long and eight miles wide. Here the group met a “barbarous people” (Acts 28:2), that is, people who did not speak Greek (they spoke Punic). They were kind, and their first act was to build a bonfire for the party. As Paul “gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand” (28:3). Luke provides a vivid description of the incident, and one can easily imagine the irony of the situation. After all Paul had suffered—perils on the road from robbers, beatings and imprisonments by city officials, death threats from his enemies, stonings from mobs, hunger, sickness, and exposure to extreme heat and cold, and four shipwrecks—it now appears that a simple snakebite will kill Paul. Those watching, a superstitious group, assume that Paul is truly guilty of his crime because, having escaped the sea, he is nevertheless punished—Justice has her due anyway. Not surprisingly, when Paul does not die from the bite (28:6), the local inhabitants think Paul is “a god,” so Justice has the final word after all! The word picture Luke provides is memorable—the rain, cold, fire, and snakebite—an eyewitness account for sure.
Paul continued on the island for another three months, healing people and finding success as a missionary (28:7–10). Today, Malta is a conservative bastion of Christianity, with churches located throughout the island, and a bay called St. Paul’s reminds us of Paul’s visit there so long ago.
On to Rome
After three months, the party found “a ship of Alexandria, which had wintered in the isle, whose sign was Castor and Pollux” (Acts 28:11). The soldiers loaded the prisoners, most likely in February A.D. 60, to continue their journey to Rome. The ship first made landfall at Syracuse (in modern-day Sicily) and then landed in Rhegium, modern-day Reggio Calabria. They made their final landfall at Puteoli, modern-day Puzzuoli located just north of present-day Naples (28:13). In Puteoli, Paul and Luke found members of the Church and tarried for seven days with them. Luke, in what some have considered a great literary turn of a phrase, continued, “and so we went toward Rome” (28:14).
The group began the land portion of their journey on the famous Appian Way—a five or six-day journey on foot. As the party traveled toward Rome, they encountered two delegations of Church leaders from the city itself: “And from thence, when the brethren heard of us, they came to meet us as far as Appii forum [about forty-three miles from Rome], and The three taverns [about thirty-three miles from Rome]: whom when Paul saw, he thanked God, and took courage” (28:15). They had read his letter, they had been waiting for his visit, they had welcomed him, and now they accompanied him the rest of the way to Rome itself.
Within a short time, Luke noted, “we came to Rome, the centurion delivered the prisoners to the captain of the guard: but Paul was suffered to dwell by himself with a soldier that kept him” (28:16).
Luke ends his two-part story in the imperial capital as Paul continues bearing witness of Jesus Christ for the next two years. If Luke knew what happened afterward, he chose not to include it. It is possible that Paul’s execution was well known and therefore Luke felt no reason to tell about it. Nevertheless, Luke’s original purpose and Paul’s divine commission were in fact now complete.
When Jesus first called Paul, the Lord said to Ananias, “Go thy way: for [Paul] is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15). The hearings before the “children of Israel” (22:1–22; 23:1–10), before the “Gentile governor” (24:1–25:12), and before the Jewish king (25:13–26:32) were in some way the immediate and direct fulfillment. In a wider context, Paul’s entire missionary experience was only the day-to-day effort to fulfill this prophecy. The risen Lord also informed Ananias, “For I will shew [Paul] how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake” (9:16). In Luke’s account and throughout Paul’s letters, we get a sense of what sufferings he experienced as “a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1).
by Customer - reviewed on January 12, 2015
The "timely insights and timeless messages" part of the title is absolutely accurate. I was so impressed with the historical research, scriptural cross references and cultural insights that added a layer of explanation to the New Testament. I am so glad I read it side by side with the New Testament this year. Some things I had passed over before as trivial or less important took on a whole new meaning for me.
Not as good as I had hoped
by Matt - reviewed on June 07, 2011
There are some good insights, but I found the book lacking in deep insights from the new testament that I was looking for. It is lacking a comprehensive index to help find passages of scripture as well that has made using it as a study guide quite cumbersome. I hate to be negative about a well-intentioned study guide, but if I could go back, I wouldn't buy the book again.
This book has made enjoying the New Testament more than a desire, but a reality
by Customer - reviewed on January 12, 2011
This book has made enjoying the New Testament more than a desire, but a reality