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.
April 13, 2020 – Acts 23-24
23:1-11 At the end of chapter 22, Paul was arrested by the Roman tribune, but before he is flogged, Paul lets it slip that he is a Roman citizen. The tribune is alarmed, and orders that the chief priests and the entire Council meet, and brought Paul to stand in front of them.
This is not the same Ananias who laid his hands on Paul in Damascus. This Ananias was high priest from AD 47-59. Exodus 22:28 says to not speak badly of the leader of your people. Paul’s frustration in verse three stems from the wall-like nature of some of the Jewish people and leaders to the message of Jesus. Just as shouting at a wall does nothing, so does talking about Jesus to the high priest.
Pharisees and Sadducees had different theological interpretations. As a Pharisee, Paul knows this, and perhaps he says what he does in verse seven for the express purpose of fomenting division between the two groups, and to take the spotlight off of Paul.
As the two groups fight, the Pharisees end up siding with Paul, taking the argument that it could be possible for him to have received some sort of vision or message from God.
The idea of “resurrection from the dead” was fairly new to the Jewish faith. In Paul’s day, only in the previous 200-300 years did some Jews accept the idea that “resurrection” happened.
At night, after being carried away from the council for his own safety, Paul sees a vision of the Lord. He is to go to Rome – the antithesis of Jerusalem, and the “most Gentile” of all places within the Roman Empire. Paul, called to preach to the Jews first but also the Gentiles, is going to the ultimate mission field.
23:12-22 Some Jews organize to kill Paul. While the number “forty” is used, it is difficult to ascertain whether this is that actual number or the biblical way of saying “many”. They neither ate nor drank – that is, this is a fast, and as such a holy endeavor for them. They do not hide their plot, but openly go to the chief priests and elders. Since it was the Jews from Asia who stirred up the crowds in the Temple a few days before, it is possible that they are part or all of this group.
Repetition in the Bible has double importance. First, it is important because writing implements and parchment were not cheap; taking the resources to say again what had already been said highlights that this is something to pay attention to. Second, it shows that the plot is thickening; repeating what happened (as in chapter 10) shows that something big is about to happen. The silence that the tribune swears Paul’s nephew to makes this all the more intriguing.
23:23-35 The numbers in verse 23 do not seem to add up. Two centurions would be in charge of at most 200 soldiers. It is possible that the numbers are accurate, though, in that perhaps all of them were spearmen, and some of them were also on horses. If not that, Luke may have added to the number to make this seem even more important than it obviously already is.
The more named people, especially named Romans, the more this story is both easier to corroborate, and easier to refute. That Luke includes the name of the tribune here shows that he is confident that the message of Jesus is true; because if one fact is out of place, it could cast doubt on everything. Also, people could presumably go and talk with Claudius Lysias, or his friends or children, to see what they knew of the story.
Claudius Lysias changes the facts a little bit from the story that we heard earlier – no doubt to make himself look better. He did not come to Paul’s aid after learning he was a Roman citizen; he learned that later, when he was about to have him flogged. Claudius leaves that part out of the story, as that would have made him look bad, or perhaps, incompetent.
The foot soldiers only accompanied Paul for a day. Once they were a day’s march away from Jerusalem, especially with Paul and all the others on horseback, the danger was mostly passed.
24:1-9 The high priest himself made the journey to Caesarea. The trial before Felix has some similarities with our modern justice system; first the prosecution presents its case (by Tertullus), then the defense (by Paul).
Tertullus makes the argument that Paul desecrated the Jewish Temple. But he also argues that Paul is a Nazorean, a member of a political sect. If this were only a case of Jewish law and the Temple, Felix would dismiss the case; but by painting it as a political issue, Tertullus implores Felix that this does involve him, and that he needs to rule on this case.
24:10-23 Paul, on the other hand, attempts to make this simply a religious case, and not a political one. Christianity is a sect of Judaism, Paul argues; and Judaism is recognized as a legitimate religion by the Romans. Paul argues the continuity of the revelation of God in the world; Jesus is not a new thing.
Paul continues by throwing doubt on the foundation of the prosecution’s case, imploring them to state what crime he has committed.
Governor Felix apparently knew about the Jesus-followers, and knew them as followers of “The Way”, not as “Christians” as they were called in Antioch earlier in Acts.
This trial probably takes place in AD 58. Paul has been preaching about Jesus for about twenty years at this point.
While Paul is kept in custody, he is allowed freedom to have visitors. Felix postpones the trial, because he would like the eyewitness testimony of Lysias.
24:24-27 Felix and his wife, Drusilla (the daughter of Herod Agrippa I, and therefore the great-granddaughter of Herod the Great, who is king when Jesus is born), want to hear more about faith in Jesus. So Paul continues his evangelizing, covering many different topics. But all of this is too much for Felix, who sends Paul away from his presence. According to Luke’s aside in verse 26, Felix was hoping for a bribe.
For whatever reason, Lysias does not make it to Caesarea in two years, and Felix’s successor is Porcius Festus. Paul is left in prison, not because of any legal basis, but because Felix wanted to leave office and be liked by the people.
- What is your understanding of “resurrection”? Is that something you have found in the Bible? If so, where?
- What is the best argument for being a Christian? Would this argument be effective in the minds of non-Christians, too?
- How are Christians to live and work within the secular justice system?
- After years of imprisonment, do you think that Paul’s faith wavered? Do you think he wondered if he would ever see Rome, as he saw in the vision in chapter 23?
- How can we care for the falsely accused?
April 15, 2020 – Acts 25-26
25:1-12 While for Felix it was a good thing to leave Paul in prison, Festus wanted the case resolved and off of his desk.
It would be natural for Festus to visit Jerusalem shortly after arriving in the province of Judea. While Caesarea was the Roman capital of the province, Jerusalem was where the Jewish authorities resided. Festus travelling to Jerusalem to meet with them gave him the chance to see how they lived and thought, and also probably bought some goodwill with the leaders that he was willing to travel to them.
Again, the plot against Paul’s life crops up. There has been a steady progression over the past few chapters in regard to this plot. At the beginning, it was Jews from Asia who wanted Paul killed; then, it was a group that came to the chief priests and said they were planning to kill Paul; here, it seems that it is the chief priests and elders themselves who have developed a plan to kill Paul. The transition of the plot from outsiders to the very center of Jewish religious authority is striking. It is not rabble-rousers who plot to kill Paul, but those who claim to be the voice of God among the people.
When it says that Festus went “down” to Caesarea from Jerusalem, it is meaning in terms of elevation. Jerusalem sits about 3800 feet above sea level. Caesarea sits directly on the Mediterranean Sea. Sometimes in modern minds, we think of “south” as “down” and “north” as “up”. That was most likely not the case then. (Caesarea does sit northwest of Jerusalem.)
Paul speaks his fourth defense. Paul highlights he has done nothing wrong against the laws of the Jews; if he has done something wrong, he will pay the penalty, which he knows may be his life.
Paul’s appeal to the emperor is part of his legal right as a Roman citizen. The emperor at the time is Nero; reports of his reign are nearly all negative. Ascending to the head of the Julio-Claudian dynasty in 54 AD (at age 16), he ruled until 68 AD when he died.
25:13-22 King Agrippa II, great-grandson of Herod the Great, arrives with his sister, Bernice (or, Berenice), probably from his kingdom north of Judea, in the area of the Sea of Galilee.
Festus makes sure to make himself seem like he is doing everything perfectly, and that he is totally in control. Paul appears before the Jewish authorities, a governor, and now he will appear before a king, similar to how Jesus appears before the high priest, before the governor Pilate, and before Herod Antipas.
25:23-27 In verse 24, Festus says that the “whole Jewish community” brought charges against Paul. This means that it was the leaders, who speak on behalf of the people, not that each individual Jewish person asked for Paul to be tried. Festus seems to refer to the riot that brought Paul to the attention of the tribune, now at least two years before.
Festus, having received Paul’s case from Felix, now needs to hear what the issue is, what the charges are (which he has already determined should not constitute death), so that he (Festus) does not look like a fool in sending someone across the Mediterranean to Rome without knowing what is going on.
26:1-11 Paul continues to defend himself. Unlike the Jewish authorities earlier, who had Tertullus speak for them, Paul speaks for himself. As a Pharisee, and one trained in the Jewish law, he is well able to do this.
The prophecy in Acts 9:15 is fulfilled in this moment – that Paul has now spoken to the Jews, the Gentiles, and even to kings. As happens throughout the book of Acts with various characters, Paul is linked to Jesus and many Old Testament prophets. He has been rejected (again and again) by the people, just as Jesus and the other prophets were.
Paul does not defend only himself. He also defends Christianity, and uses this moment as a time for evangelization. Paul claims (again) that he is on trial for hope in Jesus, and specifically, his hope in the resurrection of Jesus.
Paul argues in this way, as it is difficult to argue against the hope that someone has, and find them guilty of a crime. Paul’s actions have fit within the law – Paul’s hope cannot be judged by the law.
He notes that he was against Jesus, and that he hunted down, locked up, and perhaps (verse 11) flogged Christians so that they would recant their belief in Jesus. Paul did not just stay within Jerusalem or the surrounding area, but he travelled to do this. He states all this to show how against Christianity he was, and to highlight the change he himself received. He was not born into this, he did not come into it blindly; truly, the message of Jesus is transformational.
26:12-18 He reiterates in short order the story of the Damascus road, where he saw the vision of Jesus, on his journey to persecute the followers of Jesus. The details here are slightly different than in chapter 9.
The speech that Jesus gave is longer in chapter 26 than in chapter 9. Perhaps this was all said at the time and not related in chapter 9, or perhaps Paul is summarizing the work that he has done, and that Jesus has call him to do.
26:19-23 Paul summarizes more than 20 years of ministry. He has been called to preach the good news of Jesus, so that people repent (turn away) from what leads them away from God, and to turn to that which brings them closer to God. Paul argues that it is for preaching about God, and relationship with God, that the Jewish authorities want him killed.
Paul – like all Christians – is to preach the message of Jesus not just to the rich and important, but to all people. Christianity is not a religion of prowess or power, but of community and unity.
26:24-32 Festus cannot believe what Paul is saying. But Paul continues, appealing to King Agrippa II, whose great-great grandfather had converted to Judaism. As such, Agrippa would know well the Jewish history and laws, and would be familiar with the teachings of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and probably even somewhat of Jesus.
In Paul’s eyes, Christianity is the outgrowth of Judaism. In Jesus, Judaism comes to its fullness. Christianity is not to replace Judaism, nor to compete alongside it. Christianity is the continuation of it, in Paul’s understanding.
Though Agrippa does not commit to Christianity immediately, he does proclaim Paul innocent. Paul, like Jesus, is declared innocent three times. Paul’s request to be sent to the emperor must be upheld, and so even though he is thought to be blameless in regards to the charges brought against him, he must be sent to Rome.
- How would you argue for the hope that you have in Jesus? If someone claimed that Jesus was no one special, what would you say?
- Where do you see or experience the good news of Jesus preached? Where is it not proclaimed, but it needs to be?
- How can telling stories of past experiences give new life to faith now? What stories do you know of Christians who have overcome difficult situations, and whose stories give you hope?
April 17, 2020 – Acts 27-28
27:1-12 This is the final of four “we” sections in the book of Acts. In chapter 27 and part of chapter 28, we hear the story of Paul’s journey to Rome. It was not an easy journey. High winds and high seas were real dangers, able and willing to capsize boats and their crews.
Because of this, boats often hugged coastlines. They were able to trade along the way, as well, by doing this, and gain fresh supplies for their journey.
The boat that Paul was in sailed north along the coast, putting in at Sidon, where Paul was able to visit believers. The ship passed the island of Cyprus, south of modern-day Turkey, before setting out for the southern part of “Asia” – that is, modern-day Turkey.
The journey was not all on the same ship. Rather, existing ships were used, a sort of bureaucratic hitch-hiking. As one ship completed its journey, they would get on another in that port, one that was going in the correct (westerly) direction.
In verse 6 we hear of an Alexandrian ship heading for Italy. Alexandria, Egypt, was a major port city. Egypt’s fertile Nile valley was the breadbasket of Rome, supplying much of the city’s grain. By the end of verse 8, Paul has reached the island of Crete.
In verse 9 we hear of “the Fast” – that is, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement for the Jewish people. We hear about this day in Leviticus 16:29-34. October through April were usual months for refraining from sea voyages in the Mediterranean, because of uncertain weather.
27:13-38 The crew, captain, and centurion want to reach the city of Phoenix; with a favorable wind, they started sailing from the Fair Havens.
The wind turned into a storm, driving the boat southwest of Crete to the island of Cauda (or Clauda, probably modern-day Gaudos). With the storm furious, the sailors were able to gain a semblance of order. Yet they were still afraid of running aground on a reef, called the Syrtis. The storm did not stop for many days, causing the crew to throw the cargo overboard to lighten the ship.
Paul received a vision from an angel, assuring that Paul and the crew would all be saved. He encourages them with these words, hoping to reassure them.
The storm lasted many days. In verse 27 we hear that the storm started two weeks before this verse. Whether the storm is still going for the entire time, or the ship was damaged because of the storm and so unable to actually sail, is difficult to ascertain. They are in the Adriatic Sea, south of Greece, north of Africa, west of Crete, and east of Sicily.
A fathom is equal to two yards (some Bible translations use “fathom”, while others use “feet”).
In verse 35, the meal Paul shares with them has definite hints of Holy Communion. This entire scene – the storm, the assurances of Paul – are echoes of Jesus and his disciples in a storm on the Sea of Galilee in Matthew 8, Mark 4, and Luke 8.
Throwing the wheat into the sea would be an act of desperation. As their primary (and that this point, only) source of food, wheat was literally life. Fresh water was the only thing more important to a ship at sea. In addition, this ship’s purpose was to bring grain to Rome. By casting off the grain, the sailors show there is a new purpose; saving the lives of those onboard.
27:39-44 The shipwreck was dangerous. After tossing their food overboard, they ran their ship aground, hoping for the beach but being stopping by a reef before they could reach it. This in effect doomed the ship. Resting on the reef, with one end being battered by the waves, it was nearly certain that the ship would not survive.
All do escape the storm and the shipwreck with their lives. Now it is the Roman centurion who does the work of God, enacting the word that God spoke to Paul by preventing the harming of anyone.
This should not go unnoticed. The book of Acts is all about the expanding of the message of Jesus, not just who it is preached to, but who accepts it and acts upon it. At the beginning, it was a message only for Jews. Now, God is seen to work even through an unbelieving Roman centurion, whose duty it is to bring a messenger of the Gospel to trial in the place most unlike that of Jerusalem.
28:1-10 Malta, about fifty miles south of Sicily, was somewhat out of their way, but not entirely. The Phoenician people settled Malta, though it had fallen into Roman control shortly before 200 BC.
After the shipwreck, the built a fire. Paul gathered wood, and a viper bit him. The local people saw this as the act of the character “justice” in Greek literature. Since the waves did not swallow him, the viper would make sure that he died; certainly he was a bad person to have “justice” trailing him like this, enacting the revenge that “justice” sometimes did. In Mark 16:18, we hear “some will pick up snakes in their hands” will accompany those who believe in Jesus. (That passage, as well as this one in Acts, are key verses for “snake-handling churches”.)
Paul did not suffer any ill effects of the snakebite, to the awe of the people. They, like people of other places before them in Acts, now thought that Paul must be a god, not a murderer being pursued by justice.
Paul heals Publius’ father, who was sick. This instance of healing in reminiscent of the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law in Luke 4. This story has a different feeling than that of other healings done by the believers in the book of Acts, however. We do not have any of the words that Paul said, and we hear that Paul cured him, without mention of Jesus or the power of God. It seems like this story may have been stuck in at the last minute; the lack of detail from verse 7-10 is striking when put in juxtaposition to the rest of chapters 27 and 28. It is also strange that no one is said to have been baptized on Malta, and that none came to believe in Jesus.
The people then show their gratitude to Paul by outfitting the ship on which he leaves; he stayed on the island (we hear in verse 11) for three months, until winter had passed. Certainly, none of the sailors wished to try sailing in the winter again.
28:11-16 Another Alexandrian grain ship takes on Paul and those accompanying him. The Twin Brothers are Castor and Pollux, whom we might know as the Gemini (some translations use “Twin Brothers”, others “Castor and Pollux”).
From Malta, they sailed to the eastern side of the island of Sicily, to a port city called Syracuse, which had been settled by people of Corinth in the 700s BC. Sailing north to Rhegium, they have finally arrived at the toe of the boot of Italy, and mainland Europe. From Rhegium, in one day they sailed at least 100 miles (that is the straight-line distance between it and Puetoli, near Naples).
In Puteoli there were believers, even though Paul had never been there before. Others had taken the message to Italy before him. In verse 14 we hear that they arrived in Rome, and in verse 15, that there were believers in Rome as well. As much as we hear about Paul’s journeys and missionary efforts in the book of Acts, many others are doing the same. We heard about Timothy, Barnabas, Silas, as well as the apostles and others who preached the word in different places.
In Rome, Paul is held under house arrest, but not in a jail. As such, he is able to have visitors and a modicum of freedom.
28:17-22 Here we find that the mission to be witnesses “to the ends of the earth”, found in Acts 1:8 and spoken by Jesus, has come true. Paul has arrived in Rome, far away from Jerusalem. About 1400 miles apart as the crow flies, Paul easily travelled further than that to get to Rome. Others, according to local stories, had already or were in the process of travelling to far away places like Spain and India to preach the message of Jesus.
Again, Paul preaches first to the Jewish people in the city, as he did countless other times. As in his defenses before the authorities, he appealed to the hope that he had in Jesus for the people of Israel (and for all people). The Jews in Rome, though having not heard about Paul or any news from Jerusalem, wished to listen to Paul more. What they have heard is that Christianity is spoken against, and that it is still (probably in about 61 AD) seen as a sect within Judaism.
28:23-31 The message of Jesus is met with a similar mixed reaction as before.
Some Bibles leave out verse 29. This does happen occasionally in the Bible. When differences arise in ancient manuscripts, translators must choose which manuscript they think is closer to the original (we do not have originals of any of the New Testament books). When a verse is omitted, it is usually listed at the bottom of the page in a footnote. According to verse 29, the Jews kept the conversation going vigorously after leaving their time with Paul.
The book ends with Paul in triumph, having advanced the word of God even to the heart of the Roman Empire. There is always hope for all people; Jews and Gentiles alike.
The book ends here, seemingly abruptly. We do not hear how things end for Paul, or the majority of the other major leaders in the church. While we do hear more in other sources, they are not found in the book of Acts.
- Have you been in a storm on the sea? Or have you ever been lost, with no idea where to go, where strangers are your only hope for reorientation? What was that like?
- How can you preach without hindrance the message of Jesus Christ? How can you do it in such a way that people will keep talking about the conversation after they leave where you are?
- How can we treat the people who are preached to about Jesus, yet do not believe?