Spring 2020 Acts Bible Study
March 2020: As the Covid-19 virus changes how we worship, it also changes how we meet together to study the Bible. This Bible study has been prepared to keep up in Scripture during this time apart. Please take time to read not just the study portion posted here, but read the Scripture that it is referring to as well. Acts is all about how the early church learned to live as followers of Jesus. We too, in this new time, must re-learn in some ways what it means to follow Jesus and be church together.
March 30, 2020 – Acts 11-12
11:1-18 Jerusalem is still considered the center of the Jesus’ movement, so Peter goes back there to tell the believers what he had experienced (especially because they were critiquing him). The “circumcised believers” refers to the Jewish believers – it is an intentional literary contrast to the previous chapter, where Peter welcomed non-circumcised people into the fellowship of believers.
We hear the story of the sheet with animals and the Centurion named Cornelius again. This is the second time we hear this story in full. This is an incredibly important story – not only do we hear it, we hear it again along with an argument that this is all ok.
Beyond the story itself, Peter’s argument is just one sentence long – verse 17. “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
Peter speaks to the group of believers seen as those in control, and reminds them who is in actual control of everything. The believers – even the most highly respected – were still merely humans doing the work of God in the world. And wherever God called them to go, whatever God called them to do, whomever God call them to preach to – that was to be what they followed. Hindering God would mean opposing God, and would set one on a collision course of claiming to be equal to or greater than God. This, Peter claims, is not possible. We are here to do God’s work, however God directs us.
Another Old Testament connection in this story is that the Centurion was in the city of Joppa. Joppa is the place where Jonah went in order to board a ship for Tarshish as he attempted to flee from God and not go to preach to the Ninevites. Here we see the reversal of that (reversals show up often in the Bible, as a way of intensifying the meaning). Peter is sent to the place Jonah used as a starting point for his fleeing. Peter listens to God, the Centurion listened to God, in the very place that Jonah intentionally didn’t listen to God and deliberately disobeyed God.
11:19-30 Back in chapter 8, we heard about the Jerusalem Jesus-followers who were scattered after the stoning of Stephen. Here, we find out that while they were scattered, they were still preaching and teaching about Jesus.
Phoenecia – the coastland of the eastern Mediterranean, from modern day Israel up to the southernmost part of Turkey; Cyprus – an island in the Eastern Mediterranean; Antioch – an important city in the ancient world, just inland from the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, in modern day Turkey; all these places received exiles from the Jerusalem persecution, and were preaching only to Jewish people about salvation through Jesus.
And yet there were others, from Cyprus, and also from Cyrene – a city in modern day Libya, where Simon who carried Jesus’ cross in Matthew 27 was from – who preached to non-Jewish people as well. It is not just Peter who is preaching to Gentiles, but others are as well. And this was met with the Jerusalem believers sending Barnabas to them to teach them further. And Barnabas brought along Saul as well, and they stayed for an entire year.
Antioch is the first place that Jesus-followers are called “Christians”. It is unclear if this is a self-chosen designation or a derogatory one foisted upon them. Whatever the case, it is the clearest delineation between Jews and Jesus-followers, and the name stuck. The term “Christian” is a Greek adjective with a Latin ending; this shows the growing global nature of the religion.
12:1-5 Persecution comes from the government now, not just from the religious leaders. James is the first apostle to die, and the second martyr that we know of. James’ position as an apostle is not filled after his death, as Judas’ was after his in chapter 1.
The “King Herod” mentioned here is King Herod Agrippa I. He was the grandson of Herod the Great, the Herod that we heard about at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. Herod Agrippa I ruled from 37 AD – 44 AD, in the local area around Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, all the way up northwest of the Sea of Galilee.
12:6-19 The most shocking thing about this story may be that Rhoda forgot to open the gate! She is so excited so see Peter, that she leaves him knocking at the gate.
Peter’s release from prison parallels Jesus’ resurrection. The people don’t believe the first witness, and he is able to escape a place that should be sealed shut.
The manner in which Peter is told to ready himself for leaving imprisonment is the same as the way the Israelites were instructed to leave their enslavement in Egypt. In Exodus 12:11 “This is how you shall eat it (the Passover meal): your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the Passover of the Lord.” “Loins girded” is a phrase that is similar to having a belt wrapped around – a belt is used to keep pants up so that walking is possible – “girding the loins” is a manner of bunching up the tunic or cloak so that it is easier to move, and move quickly. To “gird the loins” also has the connotation of “giving strength”.
Names are often confusing in the New Testament; there were many people with the same name. This is a different Mary than the mother of Jesus or Mary Magdalene; John, also known as Mark, also known as John Mark, becomes a travelling companion or Saul/Paul, and is most probably not the writer of either Gospel with whom he shares a name.
James was the brother of John, the two of them being the sons of Zebedee, called by Jesus to be his disciples. That is the James who is killed at the beginning of chapter 12. There is another James, “the brother of Jesus”, who Peter lifts up as the head of the Jerusalem community in verse 17. For some, this idea that Jesus had brothers (see Mark 6:3; Matthew 13:55-56) is difficult. For Roman Catholics, for instance, Mary is the “perpetual virgin” – as such, it would require another act of the Holy Spirit for her to have children. Some have suggested that what is suggested by “Jesus’ brothers and sisters” is that Jesus had a bunch of cousins. This may be possible, and may be a faithful reading of the text. As Lutherans, the idea of Mary being the “perpetual virgin” is not important, and generally find no issues with Jesus having siblings.
Herod holds the guards responsible (incorrectly, however). This shows the ignorance of those in authority to how God works in the world.
Herod’s death is meant to be reminiscent of the death of Antiochus IV Ephipanies’ death in the Apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees, chapter 9. It is a gruesome death, one recorded to remind the believers (and encourage non-believers) to trust in God, and not to think too highly of themselves.
- One thing the believers are constantly facing is the question “Who can be saved?” In this section, we find God also calls non-Jewish people to be saved. Who is on the “outside” of Christianity now, to whom we might be called to bring the word of salvation to? And…how can we do that?
- As with Peter, God calls us to follow, even when the whole path is not clear. In what places can you trust God to lead you, even when the outcome is not assured?
- Release from bondage is both physical and figurative. In what ways have you experienced God releasing you from captivity to something? It is good to think about from what we are freed – and also good to think about for what we are freed. How do you use the freedom God gives?
- In what ways do we proclaim things as more important than God? How do our thoughts, actions, and words give greater importance to people or objects than the importance we give to God?
Week 3, Day 2: April 1, 2020 – Acts 13-14
13:1-3 This journey – the first of Saul/Paul to the Gentiles – probably dates to around 46-49 AD. This chapter starts about fifteen years after Jesus’ resurrection.
As is true throughout Acts, the believers focus on the Spirit. They spend a great amount of time in prayer, and they also take time to fast. Fasting from something is always also fasting for something. By taking something away from the body – often food – we are able to experience more deeply what we have left and focus more clearly without the normal, daily distractions. The Jesus-followers use fasting in order to focus on what the Spirit is trying to tell them.
Part of the calling of the church, back in the days of the Acts of the Apostles, and even today, is to send people to do ministry in other places. We do train people to minister in our local context, but we are called – as are others – to train people and send them off to preach about Jesus and care for people in other places. We may not see the fruits of our labor; but in the same way, other groups of believers send people to us.
13:4-12 Again, it is the Holy Spirit that sends them. It was not their decision nor a human plan, it is the will of God.
Another magician enters the scene – remember Simon the Sorcerer in Acts 8? Sergius Paulus was a Roman official. Luke offers some foreshadowing that Serguis Paulus will believe in Jesus, by calling him an “intelligent man” in verse 7. Jesus was not an uncommon name at the time, so being called the “Son of Jesus” (that is what Bar-Jesus means) is not surprising.
Elymas the magician opposed the message of Jesus. This is the first point that we hear that Saul is also known as Paul (v. 9). He didn’t have a name change when he became a Christian – instead, his Jewish friends called him Saul, and in the Greek-speaking world he was referred to as the equivalent – Paul.
Elymas feels the forcefulness of Saul/Paul. If this is how Paul fights for Jesus, no wonder the Jesus-followers were afraid of him when Paul was against them.
Again, physical blindness is connected to the spiritual blindness of not being able to recognize Jesus as the Savior. Unlike Paul’s blindness, this blindness is meant to be punitive. Even though he was a magician, he couldn’t fix what Paul caused to happen, and we do not hear about Elymas again.
Sergius Paulus, the Roman proconsul, believes because of the teaching of Paul and Barnabas, not because of Elymas becoming blind.
13:13-52 Paul and his companions continue to travel. As with states in the US, towns can have the same name if they are in a different state (there are 38 cities called “Arlington” in the US, and 36 cities called “Centerville”, among many others). So too was there more than one Antioch. This one is in Pisidia, roughly in the southwestern part of modern-day Turkey.
Paul’s presence in this synagogue, along with his speech echoes Jesus’ appearance and speech at while at the synagogue in Nazareth, where he grew up (Luke 4:16-30). It also has echoes of the speech of Stephen in chapter 7, outlining the history of salvation.
Paul’s address is directed mostly at the Jewish audience, though there were non-Jews in the synagogue. His language implies knowledge of Israelite history, as well as knowledge of recent events around Jerusalem. Paul focuses on King David and his important place in Israelite history. He doesn’t mention Abraham or others as Stephen does. Though the original hearers of each speech only heard one speech, later readers would get both, and get a fuller picture. Just as different preachers focus on different things, all pointing to the same truth, so too did the early followers of Jesus.
Paul alludes to the practice of using an ossuary, or a “bone-box”, after someone died. In verse 36 we hear that David “experienced no corruption” (NRSV) or “his body decayed” (NIV). It was common practice to wrap and care for the body of the deceased, but after the non-bone parts of the body were gone, the bones would be removed from their initial resting place and put in an ossuary.
Two patterns have emerged in the text. First, the Gospel is preached first to Jews and then to Gentiles (chapters 1, 2, 3, 13, 14, 17, 18, 19). Second, while some Jews believe, other reject the teaching that they hear.
14:1-7 The two patterns continue in chapter 14 as well. Paul and Barnabas did not fear conflict, but spoke boldly in the face of opposition. They did, however, take seriously threats to their lives, knowing that there is more mission work to do elsewhere. It was their ministry to plant seeds, and to move on and plant more seeds of the Gospel. Lycaonia is also in modern-day Turkey, in the central part of the Anatolian peninsula.
14:8-20 The healing by Paul is reminiscent of the one by Peter in chapter 3, and by ones by Jesus in the Gospels. Upon seeing the healing, the people assumed that Paul and Barnabas were gods – specifically the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes. There is a Greek myth that says two people, Philemon and Baucis, entertained the gods who came to earth in human form. Philemon and Baucis were rewarded for their hospitality, and the people who were inhospitable were destroyed. Knowing this myth, the people Lystra did not dare to not be overly hospitable to Paul and Barnabas.
Paul is appalled by this, and give a speech about how even these Lystrans have been shown the presence of the true God through the natural world. Paul doesn’t mention Jesus here, which is an unusual occurrence.
Suddenly Jewish people who were against the teaching about Jesus came all the way from Antioch and Iconium (places Paul and Barnabas had just been), and convinced the people to stone Paul instead of offer sacrifices to him. This was a huge turn of events. They do stone Paul (the second stoning we have heard about so far in Acts). They presume Paul dead, but he is not. Somehow, one day after being stoned to the point that people thought he was dead, Paul is able to go with Barnabas on a journey to Derbe.
14:21-28 Antioch, and not Jerusalem, has been the center of these two chapters. As the church grows, we begin to see different “centers” grow. Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and others.
Paul and Barnabas return to the towns where they had preached the Gospel. They do this to strengthen the church and to help create order for it. In verse 23 we hear that they “appointed elders”. The original Greek term that is translated to is English as “elders” is “presbyteroi”. It is where the modern-day Christians called “Presbyterians” get their name, since each Presbyterian church is governed by a group of “elders”.
- How much change can happen in fifteen years? If you look fifteen years into the future, where will you be, what questions will you have, how do you hope the world – and the church – will look? How can you work for that outcome to become reality?
- What patterns of behavior do you see in the church today? What are some good behavior patterns that you see, and what are some that need to be changed or addressed?
- How does raising up leaders to send them to another place benefit the church as a whole?
- Are Christians prepared to stand up for their faith, and to experience physical, emotional, and spiritual attacks for it? How can we prepare people to boldly believe, to stand up for their beliefs, and to weather these kinds of attacks?
- What are the “centers” of the Christian church and identity today? Is they certain cities, denominations, individual churches, movements? How are these helpful to the message of Jesus?
April 3, 2020 – Acts 15-16
15:1-21 Here at the center of the book of Acts, we have a major disagreement among Christians.
The question is a deeply theological one. Two markers of identity for the people of God had been circumcision, given to Abraham (see Genesis 17:9-14), and the Law, given to Moses (see Exodus 19-24 and Deuteronomy 4:44-5:12). These had been in place for more than a thousand years. Some Jewish believers thought that the Gentile believers needed to also be circumcised and to follow the all laws (especially the dietary ones). Other Jews did not think Gentiles needed to, but that Jews did. And another group did not think that anyone needed to be bound by these laws at all. Yet some Jewish believers only saw salvation through Jesus as possible if these laws and the covenant of circumcision were upheld.
Paul and Barnabas debate with this group that thinks that Gentiles need to be circumcised and follow the entire law. Their debate in Antioch is apparently unresolved, for both sides – Paul and Barnabas, and the other group – are appointed by the church in Antioch to travel to Jerusalem to seek the wisdom of the apostles and the elders of the church. It is important that it is the body of believers that sends both of these groups. The church – even back in Acts – is called to not shy away from conflict, but to engage in it when it occurs, so as to strengthen the body of Christ. It should be noted that the issue of whether Gentiles can be Christian really has been solved at this point. That is not the issue at all, but how Gentiles – and all Christians – should live out being Christians.
Barnabas, Paul, and Peter all speak, but it is James the brother of Jesus who is seen as the head of the believers at this point. James (presumably with the help of the elders and apostles) reaches the decision that Gentile Christians do not need to be circumcised. But, they do need to do four things: abstain from food sacrificed to idols (because it is would be seen as ritually unclean), fornication (probably refers to marriage to a close relative), whatever has been strangled (animals who did not have the blood properly drained at death), and from blood (blood is seen as the life-force, and according to Leviticus 17:15, it is to be avoided). These four things are less for the sake of the Gentiles, and more for the sake of the consciences of the Jewish believers, who would have had a hard time associating with Gentiles who did not obey these laws.
15:22-35 Again, it is the Holy Spirit that guides the believers. They do not make decisions rashly, but with first consulting what God wants them to do. Paul, Barnabas, Silas, and Judas Barsabbas are sent to Antioch to strengthen the church and to renew the bond between the church in Jerusalem and the church in Antioch. They are to carry back the message of what the elders and apostles decided regarding the issue that started the chapter. While we can read this in a few minutes, it is likely that this chapter took place over weeks, if not months. Since these cities are about two hundred miles apart, and because the believers probably walked most of the way, it would take more than a week for them to travel to and from the two locations.
15:36-41 Paul and Barnabas have a disagreement. Paul did not want to take someone (John Mark) who left early from the previous trip. Barnabas did want to take John Mark – presumably, he offered some sort of help for their journey. The disagreement was enough to split Paul and Barnabas. They both leave, on separate journeys, with separate partners.
The unity of the church and the mission of Jesus as seen throughout Acts is not always enough to conquer personal differences and personality clashes.
16:1-5 Timothy becomes one of Paul’s close coworkers, again back in modern-day Turkey. Because of the controversy (and even because of the decision by the Jerusalem council), Paul asks Timothy to be circumcised, to which he acquiesces. Part of their mission is not only to preach about Jesus, but to teach and encourage those who already do believe in Jesus. Doing this empowered the Christian churches to grow and to develop their own leaders. Timothy’s mother, Eunice, and grandmother, Lois, were also believers in Jesus, and their passed this faith to Timothy. They are mentioned in 2 Timothy 1:5.
16:6-10 Paul and Timothy go to modern-day northeastern Turkey.
Verse 7 is the only reference to “the Spirit of Jesus” in the book of Acts. This unique reference is puzzling.
The Roman province of Macedonia included the northern part of modern-day Greece, as well as part of Albania and North Macedonia. This vision of the “Man of Macedonia” is reminiscent of Peter’s vision in Acts 10, and the vision of the centurion in the same chapter. Macedonia was where Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, reigned from 359-336 BC.
Acts 16:10-17 is the first of four “we” sections in the book (the others are in chapters 20, 21, and 27). It is possible they were composed by travelling companions of Paul – and it is possible that Luke was travelling with Paul at this point. His sudden move in and out of the use of “we” is abrupt.
16:11-15 Lydia was a believer in God, and was also probably well-off. As a dealer in purple cloth, she provided luxury items for people in the area. She was a business woman, who was in contact with wealthy and influential people. Here again (as with Sergius Paulus), we see that the message of Jesus is for everyone, including the elite and wealthy.
She “and her household were baptized”. This, and Paul’s agreement to stay at her house, show that she is accepted fully as a believer. The Good News of Jesus has now crossed into Europe.
16:16-40 Paul and Silas and the believers were going out to the place of prayer (so we know they were in the same place for at least two weekends), and a slave girl met them. It had a “spirit of divination”. This “spirit” and exorcism of it are different than the ones that happen in the Gospels. The spirit is not said to be evil, and there isn’t any conversation between the spirit and the believers.
The Greek words for “spirit of divination” are “pneuma pythonos” – which when literally translated mean “spirit of a python”. While these words probably reference the python that guarded the Oracle at Delphi (which people in that area would have known about), it is probably also a reference to how the spirit held her. She was unable to release herself from the grasp of the spirit. This is a story about power, and especially about how people exploited this girl in order to make money, instead of help her.
Her owners were upset, as their scheme to make money was no more. Their complaint to the local magistrates enrages the people, and the magistrates, seeing no other option, order Paul and Silas to be beaten (reminiscent of the crowds chanting for Jesus’ death and the release of Barabbas). The magistrates threw the believers in prison after the flogging.
In the middle of the night there was an earthquake (as there when Jesus was resurrected to new life in Matthew’s Gospel). This deliverance from prison is similar to that of Peter and John’s in chapter 5, and from Peter’s in chapter 12. Paul and Silas care for their captors; this is the proper Christian response, to care for those who persecute you.
Paul and Silas preach to the jailer about Jesus; the jailer cares for their wounds, and he and his whole family are baptized.
In the morning, the magistrates did not want to deal with Paul and Silas and the uproar they caused, so they told the jailer to let them go. But Paul was frustrated; he was a Roman citizen, and as such it was not legal to have flogged him. Paul hints that Silas is also a Roman citizen. What the magistrates did was illegal, and the least they could do would be to come and release their prisoners themselves. The magistrates did this, hoping to avoid any blowback for flogging and imprisoning Roman citizens.
Paul and Silas visit Lydia again, before going on their way.
- What does the church require of its members today? Is it enough? Is it too much or too little?
- How do personality and personal differences clash in the church today? How can these be used for good, and not used to divide?
- In what ways can Christians become bound by things that are inescapable? When are Christians in need of others to release them from physical, emotional, and mental captivity? How can sharing our moments of captivity and release help those who are still in bondage?
- Where do you see dichotomies in our justice system? When are some people treated one way, and others (because of status, wealth, race, or other things) treated differently?