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 16, 2020 – A Brief Introduction to the Book of Acts
Before we dive into the twenty-eight chapters in Acts over the next few weeks, it’s good to look at an overview of the book, so we know where we are and have an idea of the overall scope.
Acts is a sequel to the Gospel according to Luke. The full name of the book is “The Acts of the Apostles”. It begins with the Ascension of Jesus from earth back to heaven, just as the Gospel of Luke ended with that event (see Luke 24:50—53).
In Acts we’ll hear about the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, hear of the scattering of the apostles, and end with the imprisonment of the Apostle Paul in Rome. The book moves the story from the land of Israel to the lands surrounding it, and from only Jewish people to include Gentiles (non-Jews) as well.
Acts is a sort of bridge between the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and the epistles (letters – the rest of the New Testament except Revelation). Acts is written as narrative, and yet theology is incredibly important throughout the book.
While Acts was written by Luke, he wasn’t an eyewitness to (at least most) these stories. He gathered stories from individuals and possibly from other writings that we do not have anymore (or, perhaps, that we haven’t discovered yet). There was a Luke who was a travelling companion on Paul – the name Luke shows up in other places in the New Testament, in Colossians 4:14, Philemon 24 (Philemon is just one chapter, so “24” denotes the verse number), and 2 Timothy 4:11. While it is difficult to be certain that this is the same “Luke”, it is generally believed that it is one and the same.
Acts begins between 30 and 33 A.D. with Jesus’ resurrection, near the town of Bethany outside of Jerusalem. It ends in 61 A.D. with Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. In twenty-eight chapters, we journey at least twenty-eight years. There is little evidence to give exact years for each of the stories, especially in the early part of the book. Guesses are made, and these guesses are made easier the later we read in the book, when we hear stories of Paul’s missionary journeys throughout the Mediterranean.
The people in these stories were on an uncharted journey. Jesus had come and lived on earth, ascended to heaven, and left them the task for figuring out how to be the body of Christ on earth. This was a time of struggle and trials, uncertainty as well as joy.
As in the Gospel according to Luke, in Acts we find that the author pairs stories of men and women. In Luke, we see the stories of Zechariah and Mary (Luke 1:5-23; 26-38), Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:25-38), as well as others. This pairing shows up in Acts as well. This balancing of stories has received a great deal of attention – Luke was ahead of his time! some claim – it is difficult to fully extrapolate what Luke was intending, though. Though his pairing could signal seeing equality as important, women are not seen in key Jesus-follower roles of forgiving, healing, nor exorcising in the book of Acts, like men are. So, while Luke does lift of up women, he does continue many of the societal norms of the day that kept men above women.
Luke wrote Acts after he wrote the Gospel. Since the Gospel was probably written after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (which took place in 70 A.D.), Acts was most likely written between 80-90 A.D.
The book of Acts was written within a very different culture and time than our modern-day experience. The Roman Empire was vast at this time, though not yet at its peak. It was nearly the size of the contiguous US: North Africa and Egypt, modern day Israel and Palestine, Syria, Turkey, and parts of Iraq, the modern-day Balkans, Switzerland, Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal. The entire Mediterranean was surrounded by the Roman Empire. Trading routes all led back to Rome, and went as far away as India. The Romans first entered Britain in the 40s A.D.
Different towns had different cultures. The larger cities – Rome, Antioch (Syria), Alexandria (Egypt), Ephesus (Turkey), and Carthage (Tunisia) were metropolitan areas, with populations over 200,000 people, and with occupants from all over the Empire. Slavery was legal and widespread. The city of Rome itself was probably between 500,000 and 1 million people. We see some of the differences between the cities in the letters that are written to them. The people of Rome (Romans), Colossae (Colossians), Corinth (1 and 2 Corinthians), deal with different topics and issues, because the people of that city had different issues they were dealing with.
Acts may have been written to a specific person or group, or to a larger audience. It is difficult to tell, based on the opening, “In the first book, Theophilus…”. “Theophilus” means “God-lover” or “friend of God” – this could be one person, a group, or a larger audience of all who consider themselves followers of God. Whatever the case, the book was copied over and over, so that it came to be read throughout many churches and was considered part of the New Testament Canon early in Christian history.
- What stories do you know from the book of Acts?
- What do you know about the group called the Apostles?
- How do you see God working in the world today?
- Where do you hope to see the Holy Spirit?
- How do you describe your walk of faith with Jesus?
Do you have questions or comments about this study? Please email Pastor Will at firstname.lastname@example.org
March 18, 2020 – Acts 1-2
1:1-5 – Luke begins with a prologue, reminding “Theophilus” (God-lover, or friend of God) what he wrote in the Gospel of Luke. “Forty” in the Bible means “a while”, or “a long time”, not necessarily forty days. So, Jesus appeared after his resurrection for a while (forty days, v. 3), before his ascension to heaven. In the church, we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus forty days after Easter (whatever the following Sunday is, since that is always a Thursday). Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit soon.
1:6-11 Check out the story of the Ascension of Jesus in Luke 24:50-53. See what is the same, and what is different. The story in Acts is longer; in the book of Luke, the Ascension is the last thing, the summary, the cherry-on-top of the Jesus story. Here in Acts, it is the launching point for the rest of the book. How does that change the tone of the Ascension story? Jesus’ words here are the last thing he’ll say to the disciples. The disciples (all eleven of them, since Judas Iscariot wasn’t alive) ask God about when God will return the kingdom to Israel. The term “kingdom” shows up throughout Luke and Acts – primarily as “Kingdom of God”. It is not a reference to a physical kingdom, but rather a “reign” or “rule”, and it implies that God is in control in the presence of loving community. Jesus promises the Holy Spirit, and then proclaims they will tell about Jesus to the ends of the earth (see Matthew 28:19-20 for a similar “sending”), and then his feet leave the ground and he floats upward to the sky. Two men in white robes (look at Luke 24:1-5) tell them that Jesus will come back in the same way he left.
1:12-26 The disciples walked about a half mile (a Sabbath’s journey wasn’t longer than 2000 cubits, or a half mile) back to the upper room, where the eleven disciples prayed with Jesus’ mother Mary, other women, and Jesus’ brothers.
The disciples decided to add one to their number, so they could again have twelve after Judas had died (Acts 1:18-19). They did this because they saw their movement as a “new Israel”, and ancient Israel had twelve tribes. When other disciples were killed or died (James is killed by King Herod in Acts 12:1), they do not add someone to fill in his spot. In the book of Acts, only these twelve are considered “Apostle” meaning “sent forth”, or “messenger”. Other books in the New Testament use this word “Apostle” differently; Paul in 1 Corinthians mention people who are not part of the Twelve as Apostles, as well as in Philippians and Galatians, among other books. In Romans, Paul mentions that a woman is considered an “Apostle”, which is not something that happens in Acts. The disciples used a process called “casting lots” – something that we might liken to drawing straws in order to choose between their two candidates. This method was seen as a way that God could choose in the midst of a human decision (this happens in other places, including Jonah 1:7).
2:1-13 The day of Pentecost was a Jewish holiday (Shavuot, meaning “weeks”), fifty days after the Passover (Pentecost in Greek – “fiftieth”). Many Jewish people had gathered in the city of Jerusalem for the festival. The disciples gathered as well, because Jesus had told them to wait in Jerusalem until after they received the Holy Spirit. As they gathered together, there was the rush of a violent wind, and things like tongues of fire danced over their heads. Throughout the Bible, the Spirit is portrayed as a wind, or breath (Hebrew “ruah” means wind, breath, or spirit).
Suddenly they could speak in other languages, languages they could not before. And because of this, a great crowd gathered, wondering what was going on. Pessimistically, someone suggested they were all drunk. And all wondered what this meant, and how in the world something like this could happen.
2:14-36 Peter denies they are drunk, quotes from Joel 2:28-32, and proclaims the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is the Messiah (Hebrew); also known as Christ (Greek); in English, we would use the term “Savior”. Peter declares that (v. 17) by saying that these are the “last days” that Jesus is the turning point in history. We see that in our calendar, which counts from the birth of Jesus. (To be fair, it mostly counts from the birth of Jesus – the person who put the calendar together a few hundred years after Jesus was off by a few years; Jesus was probably born in 4 or 6 BC.)
Peter puts the responsibility for the death of Jesus on the Jews. Even though Peter was a Jew, and it was the Romans who did the crucifying, Peter claims that it was the Jewish people who rejected and killed Jesus. This is something we should take note of; Jewish people have been treated terribly by Christians for the past 2000 years because of this, they have been seen as inferior, as God-killers, ostracized, put in ghettos, and generally looked down upon. Perhaps Luke is trying to paint a theological picture here; perhaps he is trying to downplay the responsibility of the non-Jewish (Gentile) people, so that the Gospel can be heard more clearly by them. Whatever the case, the Jewish people do not bear more responsibility for Jesus’ death than others. We should not treat people of Jewish background differently than any of our neighbors. Anti-Semitism is never ok; the Lutheran church has apologized for the anti-Semitic remarks made in Luther’s later writings.
2:37-42 After hearing Peter’s speech, the people are moved and want to know what to do. Peter implores them to turn from their previous way of thinking and acting (repent) and be baptized. Here we find that baptism forgives sins. Also, where hear that the Holy Spirit is given not just to the Twelve, but to all who are baptized. In day, three thousand people were baptized, and they began to learn from the Apostles; they broke bread (a hallmark of the culture, but also of this new community of faith). Prayer featured heavily in the early Christian community, as well. In verse 40, the word “saved” is in a passive tense – it is not that the individual is saving themselves, but that they are “being saved” by God.
2:43-47 This section is a summary; it is also and idyllic picture of early Christian life. Here we find an ideal of what we should strive for. Being together, having all things in common, sharing possessions and goods, giving to those in need, spending time in Christian fellowship, eating together, and praising God: these are the things we are to do as Christians. We may not achieve this at all times, but this is to what we should strive.
- What part of this story would you like to be able to travel back in time and experience?
- Have you ever been in a place where there were multiple languages being spoken? How did you feel?
- Have you ever heard a speech or sermon that moved you to action?
- What things in life do you need to repent from – change your ways of thinking or acting?
- How can we join together in Christian community over the coming weeks? What spiritual needs do you have? How can you communicate those needs to others?
- When we do come back together, what will you want from your Christian community?
March 20, 2020 – Acts 3-4
3:1-10 There is power in the name of Jesus, during this first healing in the book of Acts. Peter did nothing spectacular here – he didn’t wave a wand or recite an incantation. He declared, “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” Here, and in the next section, Peter claims it was God who did the work of healing. The name of Jesus is powerful against things that keep us from community and full relationship with God.
Peter took the man by his right hand. This may seem like an innocent detail. The Jewish people listening to this part of Acts read would have heard the deeper meaning in this. In Hebrew, right is associated with “power” or “strength”. In taking him by the right hand, Peter raised him up. He was raised to new life with power – a shadow or foil for Jesus’ own resurrection. This story also links Peter’s authority to Jesus’ own. This passage is similar to the one in Luke 5:17-26.
Peter sees relationship with Jesus, and the authority of Jesus, as more important than money. Though money can give comfort or security for a time, relationship with Jesus is extraordinary in that it gives these things forever, in a deeply wholistic manner. We as Christians are to give our faith to others, just as Peter did.
This section reveals how the kingdom (reign; see May 18 Bible Study) works. It is not about physically taking over a whole area, but rather an in-reaching into every area of physical location, social distancing, future insecurity – and turning these things on their heads so that people can have relationship with God more clearly.
3:11-26 News of this healing spreads quickly, which is unsurprising, since the man was recognizable and he hardly would have kept quiet about his healing. The people’s amazement is an opportunity for Peter to speak (more accurately, to preach; if you give a preacher a microphone, they will give a sermon). The beginning of this speech, like the preceding two chapters of Acts, keeps the message of Jesus within the Jewish community.
Peter reminds the Jewish (Israelite) people of the recent events – that Jesus was rejected by the people (who asked for the murderer Barabbas instead, in Luke 23:18) and killed, but that God raised Jesus from the dead. Peter claims that he and John are witnesses to this – a bold claim, one that might make them seem crazy. But it doesn’t seem like anyone questions this, which is curious and assumes that this story of Jesus’ resurrection is not completely new to the people – there are rumors of this floating in the community.
Even though the people were complicit (according to Peter, see May 18 Bible Study), God is willing to give them the chance at renewed relationship. Peter implores them to “repent” – a physical and mental turning from their way of doing things, and living into the new reality of the reigndom of God. This is not just saying I’m sorry; it is recognizing the wrong, confessing it, and then changing their way of life so that they don’t do that again.
Near the end of Peter’s speech turned sermon, in verse 25, he restates the blessing given to Abraham in Genesis (12:3; 18:18, 22:18). In the book of Acts, this blessing is now a foreshadowing of how the Good News (Gospel) of Jesus will move out from just the Jewish community to the surrounding people in the following chapters. Throughout the next few chapters, new groups will be added to those who are able to experience the salvation of Jesus and right relationship with God. (This is the perfect moment for a giant “Stay Tuned” or “Coming Soon” billboard with bright lights and vibrant colors.)
4:1-21 The story begins in chapter three at about three o’clock in the afternoon. At the beginning of chapter 4, we hear that night has fallen – hours have passed since the start of the story.
John and Peter are thrown into prison by the religious leaders, who are perturbed by their preaching about Jesus. It was the religious leaders who had arrested Jesus, and fomented the crowd to demand Jesus be crucified. They thought they had laid this matter to rest. But these two followers are claiming that the person everyone saw die a horrible death on the cross is not dead, but somehow came back to life.
The Christian community is growing quickly – three thousand became Jesus followers in chapter 2. Five thousand here.
The religious leaders, in their zeal for order, forget to rejoice in the healing! They are so stuck in what they see as important, in their power and authority and prestige, that they cannot be filled with joy for someone whose life has been changed for the better.
Peter is not afraid to preach to anyone, even the people who orchestrated the killing of Jesus. The Holy Spirit (v. 8) is the thing that give him this boldness. The Holy Spirit is very active in Acts – not only active, but recognized as active.
Peter and John were ordinary people, through whom God worked extraordinary things; this shows up in the Gospels as well. Peter denies Jesus in Luke 22:54-62; and the rest of the disciples scatter.
And, here comes the mic drop, in verses 19-20: “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Peter lays it out; he’s not going to stop, no matter what.
The religious leaders threaten Peter and John, demand they don’t speak in the name of Jesus again, and let them go. The phrase “no way” is the best to describe how much the disciples will listen to the religious authorities, whose understanding of who God is and what God wants is backward/sideways/upside down, all at the same time.
Forty, in verse 22 (see May 18 Bible study), means a long time; when referring to “years”, it often means a “generation”. So, he may have been more than forty calendar years old; or he may have been old; or, he may have been 18, or 25, or another “generational” term. In short, he wasn’t a child, and had lived without this healing for a long time.
4:22-31 Peter and John go back to a group of people who believes in Jesus (we don’t know the exact composition of this group – generally it is called the “Jerusalem community”). They report what has happened – this reporting, or debriefing, happens many times in the book of Acts. They share how God is working in their world and their lives. The believers are joyful that God has given them this work, quote from Psalm 2, and join together in prayer. Prayer is a hallmark of Christian community. The Holy Spirit shows up again, as in chapter 2, in a tangible way.
4:32-37 This section is a summary, similar to Acts 2:43-47. There was no private ownership, and people who did own land would sell it for the good of the community. We find out later that not everyone sold their land, however – Mary (12:12), Lydia (16:40), and Philip (21:8) have their own places. All of these people use their houses as gathering places for believers in Jesus – they own these places so that prayer or worship can happen. And, we hear about a man named Barnabas, who becomes a travelling companion on Paul.
- Who do we encounter who needs healing? Is it physical, emotional, or spiritual? Is it a combination? How can the message of Jesus – or the name of Jesus – prompt healing?
- When do we forget to take joy in something good that happens? When something is good and we are in a bad mood, or it isn’t exactly what we want, how can we take a breath to experience the life-giving nature of God in the moment?
- The early believers focused on the life of Jesus and the connections with historical figures in the Old Testament. Which figures in the Bible do you know well? Which ones do you want to learn more about?
- How bold are you in mentioning Jesus, or the church, or God, in public places? Are you bold like Peter? Do you avoid those conversations, or quiet your voice when you talk about these things? When do you find it easy to talk about God?