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 23, 2020 – Acts 5-6
5:1-11 This is a difficult story. It may be offensive to our modern minds. It is very easy to figure out ways to explain it way, to make it more palatable: perhaps Ananias and Sapphira had heart conditions; or they didn’t really die but were in so much shock they appeared dead; or they faked everything to get out of an awkward situation. And yet these explanations don’t help with the text, and if anything they are an awkward self-soothing.
Somehow, Ananias and Sapphira die. The “how” is not the important part for the early believers – the “why” is the most important. Acts tells us that first Ananias comes to the believers. He and Sapphira are equals – he didn’t make financial decisions without her, an oddity at the time. Ananias gives money to the believers, purporting it to be the full amount that was gained from the sale of the land.
Peter knows this is a lie, somehow, and accuses Ananias of lying and deceit. We are able to do what we want with that which is entrusted to us – but to lie about what we give to God, that is not ok.
Here we have the juxtaposition of the Holy Spirit, which is in Peter’s heart, and Satan (the personification of evil; in Hebrew satan means “accuser” or “adversary”). This is the same pairing that Luke makes in the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus receives the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:22) and then is sent out to the wilderness and is tempted by Satan (Luke 4).
Sapphira comes in, and lies to Peter’s face verbally (v.7). She becomes complicit in her husband’s deception. Luke implies something strange for the time – that she could speak opposite her husband. This is a foreshadowing of how Christian community is supposed to work – all people having a voice.
No reason is given for why she is given the opportunity to repent, and he wasn’t. The early church, mentioned in verse 11, is taught by this that deception of the community of Christ is not right. Peer pressure is not ok. Holding back part of yourself from God is not what God asks. God asks for us to entirely be truthful, and to be fully focused on God. Consequences for deception are real – this is a cautionary tale for the church. This story stands in direct opposition to the positive words about Barnabas at the end of chapter 4. When the book was written, chapters weren’t included, and so these stories were found next to each other with no break.
5:12-16 This is another section, like Acts 2:43-47 and 4:32-37, that is a summary of what is generally going on in the early Jesus community. Solomon’s portico, or porch, was on the eastern side of the Temple complex in Jerusalem. To carry on from the previous section, both men and women are added to those who believed; this is not just a movement for some people, but for all people.
Just as people could be healed by touching Jesus’ clothing, so Peter’s shadow could do the same. It seems far-fetched by today’s standards, to be sure, but it may have happened exactly that way – God works in mysterious ways.
5:17-42 Persecution comes from those in authority, specifically those in religious authority. While this links to the previous chapter, it (unknowingly for the disciples) also foreshadows to the next 300 years of Christian history.
This is not the only prison break in Acts. Just as in the Gospels, the power of Jesus breaks the chains that bind us, physically and otherwise. It does this in ways that are indescribable, surprising, and discomforting for those in authority who cannot control what is going on.
Gamaliel, a member of the Council, gives a very faith-filled response. He is one of the least-reactionary religious leaders in Acts. He is also of the Pharisee tradition, while the other religious elders who are mentioned previously in Acts are from the Sadducee tradition. These different traditions had varying ways of thinking, and in the Gospels they are often portrayed as contrary to each other in many ways. Paul (who we will encounter in a few chapters first as “Saul”) is tutored by Rabbi Gamaliel.
6:1-7 Conflict exists amidst the idyllic community described in Acts 2 and 4. Even early Christians dealt with conflict and disorder within a community of Christ. The Hellenists were those who speak Greek and not Hebrew. Language is often a divisive thing – whether it is a different language, like Spanish and Russian, or difference between dialects, or generational language differences – these can divide a community.
The believers decided to choose seven people to help with the daily distribution to those who were in need. All of these people have Greek names, and seven denotes wholeness (this number shows up throughout the Bible with this connotation).
6:8-15 Warnings (chapter 4), flogging (chapter 5), now we set the stage for chapter 7, where death is a consequence of the Gospel of Jesus. There are many parallels between Jesus and Stephen. They both have people bring false testimony, they both upset the religious leaders, people could not stand up to them in an argument, and they both have glowing faces (see Luke 9).
- Where have you experienced conflict in the church? Was it resolved in a healthy manner?
- Reconciliation from conflict is two-sided. How have you helped create reconciliation in the body of Christ – and how can do you that now?
- How has the church persecuted others? How has the church taken power away and silenced groups of people? And, how can we lift those voices up so that we might walk closer to Jesus?
- What emotions do you think were happening in these two chapters? Read through these chapters again, and think about how people were feeling throughout this. Often, we read the Bible as a two-dimensional narrative, monotonous, and emotionless. It is anything but that.
Week 2, Day 2: March 25, 2020 – Acts 7 & 8
7;1-53 At the end of chapter 6, Stephen argues with Jewish people at the synagogue of the Freedmen. His arguments are powerful, presumably all about Jesus and him being the Christ (Messiah, Savior). The religious leaders stir up people to say false things against Stephen because of his witness.
At the beginning of chapter 7, the high priest prompts Stephen to speak. Stephen begins with an overview of the history of the people of Israel, in five parts: Abraham, Joseph, Moses, idolatry in the desert, and the building of the Temple. While the story of the Bible starts earlier, the story of the Israelite (Jewish) people starts with Abraham. In verse 8 we hear of Abraham’s grandson, Jacob. Jacob is also called Israel, because of the story in Genesis 32:22-32. Jacob was the father of the “twelve patriarchs”, who give their names to the twelve tribes of Israel.
One of Jacob’s sons, Joseph (whose two children, Ephraim and Manasseh, are usually listed as “half-tribes”) was sold into slavery by his brothers, but becomes a great leader in Egypt, saving that nation and his father’s family from famine. Joseph is supposed to remind us of Jesus – savior of the people, rejected by his own, has grace and wisdom.
That whole generation died – Exodus 12:40-41 and Galatians 3:17 tell us that the length of the time the descendants of Israel spent in Egypt was 430 years. As is want to happen in 430 years – imagine how differently our world and thought are than 1590 – the leaders of Egypt forgot what Joseph did to save the Egyptians. The descendants of Jacob/Israel became slaves in Egypt. A baby was born named Moses, who was raised by Pharaoh’s daughter. It was women – Pharaoh’s daughter, the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, and Moses’ mother and sister Miriam – who work to subvert the desires of Pharaoh (who had ordered all Israelite male babies were to be killed).
When he was forty years old (verse 23), Moses went to see the enslavement of his people. He became enraged by their treatment, killed an Egyptian, and fled Egypt. It is good to remember here that “forty” when used in the Bible usually means “a long time”, not “exactly forty years”. Moses was not a child when this happened – this is good to remember because we hear in verse 30 that Moses spent 40 years living in the desert, before he came back to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt. He would then be 80 if we were to read this literally, and not the writer’s intended meaning of “a long time”. (Moses’ last “40” years of life are spent wandering in the desert. His life is cut into three sections, which could be understood in relation to God as Separation – living away from the people of Israel among the Egyptians; Seeking – living away from the people of God but learning to listen to God; Pilgrimage – walking with the people and God.)
Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt – and yet even though it was through the power of God that they were freed, they asked Moses’ brother Aaron to make gods for them to worship. In this time of desert wandering, they fall away from relationship with God, worshipping idols instead of God. And yet God keeps coming back to them, offering relationship again and again.
Both Moses and Jesus are misunderstood by their people. They are both reconcilers. They both spend time wandering in the wilderness, and also experience the voice of God on a mountain.
The final section of Stephen’s speech is about the Temple; the original was built by Solomon around 950 BC. This was destroyed in about 587 BC. The Second Temple lasted from 516 BC to 70 AD (so, this Temple was the one in the New Testament, the one at which Stephen was speaking). Stephen claims that the religious leaders did not understand that God didn’t actually dwell in that physical Temple – God cannot be contained, and that these leaders opposed the Holy Spirit, killed the prophets, and do not understand God. By calling the religious leaders “uncircumcised”, Stephen declares them to not belong to God’s people – this is big claim, and an offensive one to those who see themselves as God’s anointed.
7:54-60 This enraged the religious leaders. But Stephen didn’t stop there. He continued, claiming that he could see heaven open and Jesus (the “Son of Man”) at God’s right hand (the “right hand” is the position of power, authority, and approval).
In his whole speech, Stephen claims that Jesus’ life parallels Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David and Solomon, and all the other great leaders in Israel’s history.
The religious leaders could not stand this idea – that Jesus was in heaven, that Jesus was at God’s right hand, that Jesus is like anyone great, and that Jesus was anything important at all.
Stephen’s prayer echoes Jesus’ own in Luke 23:46, as well as Psalm 31:5. He prays as well for his executioners, the same as Jesus in Luke 23:34.
Saul (who will soon become Paul, and a great Christian missionary), is at this point against the message of Jesus. He was a student of Rabbi Gamaliel (see chapter 5), and at this point was seen very highly, shown by the note that he was the person that people put their cloaks by for safe-keeping (this would be seen as a higher role than what it generally is seen as today).
As the 2nd and 3rd century AD theologian Tertullian wrote, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Stephen is the first Christian “martyr” – person who is killed for their religious beliefs. The message of Jesus is not for the faint of heart; strict warnings, being kicked out, put in prison, flogged, and even killed – these are the things that we have to face as Christians.
8:1-3 The author Luke includes the first part of verse 1, “And Saul approved of their killing of him” in order to highlight the change that is coming soon to Saul. We will pick back up with that story in chapter 9.
Stephen’s stoning sets off a firestorm of persecution. Many of the believers scatter. Stephen is buried by some believers. Meanwhile, Saul begins rounding up believers by going from house to house.
At this point, we are probably 2-5 years after Jesus’ resurrection. It is easy to get lost in the story, and to see these things as happening one right after another. The “summary breaks” that we saw in Acts 2, 4, and 5 probably denote larger stretches of time – months, and possibly years – between the preceding and succeeding sections.
8:4-25 Samaria – where the Samaritans lived – becomes the first non-Jewish place the Gospel is preached. Now the message begins to spread outside of the original hearers. This will continue as we keep going through Acts.
Philip goes out on his own in order to tell about Jesus, and was able to do many of the miracles that Peter was able to do. Even though he could do these, he did not let the attention focus on him, but continually pointed back to Jesus.
As we hear in the story of Moses in Pharaoh’s court, Simon the Sorcerer (as he is usually called) can do magic. Even this Simon was amazed at Philip and the power of the name of Jesus, and he believed, too.
As Christians do to this day, when people become receptive to the word of God, more missionaries are sent in order to help. Peter and John are sent to Samaria. This word “sent” implies that the apostles in Jerusalem worked together as a group, and decided things together, without one being more important than another.
Simon the Sorcerer sees the power of the Holy Spirit, and offers money to be able to use it. Peter is appalled, and calls Simon to repent of his foolish ways, which he does.
8:26-40 Here is another instance of the message of God going out to another group of people. Eunuchs (males whose testicles have been cut off), often were in the service of a royal, usually a queen or princess. The nameless Ethiopian eunuch was an attendant to the queen of the Ethiopians, Candace. The Ethiopian monarchs claimed descendance from King Solomon – when the Queen of Sheba (Ethiopia) came back from visiting Solomon in the Old Testament (around 950 BC), the story is that she was pregnant with Solomon’s child. As such, the Ethiopians at the time read the Hebrew Scriptures, including Isaiah.
Not only does Philip speak with this person who is 1) Ethiopian, and 2) not considered ritually “whole” by the Jews, Philip baptizes him. Philip doesn’t baptize in a bowl of holy water, but in water by the side of a road. God is spreading the reigndom of God outward, into new places and to new groups of people
- The church faced deep difficulties early on; the leaders were attacked and persecuted, thrown in jail and even killed. This happens to this day in some places. Have you ever imagined being thrown in jail or killed for your beliefs?
- When do you see religious leaders (or very religious people) get angry today? Why are they angry? Do you think their anger is something Jesus would be glad for, or upset with?
- What group of people would Christians not want to preach the message of Jesus to? What groups do modern Christian shun or not like?
- In Luke 21:1-4 and Acts (including 8:4-25), we hear about how money is to be used within Christian community. It is not a bargaining chip to gain power, but something to be given out of joy for the good of others. What are barriers to giving money joyfully? What causes us to miss out on true generosity and instead want attention for what we give?
Week 2, Day 3: March 27, 2020 – Acts 9-10
9:1-19a Saul went to Damascus, about 200 miles to the northeast (the capital of modern-day Syria), in order to find people who believed in Jesus and bring them back to Jerusalem and put them in prison. We learn from this that there are Jesus-followers as far away as Damascus. We also learn that the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem were worried about this.
At this point (probably around 37 AD), the believers in Jesus are called followers of “the Way”. This terminology is reminiscent of the Qumran community (which hid the Dead Sea Scrolls away sometime before 70 AD, Scrolls that weren’t found until 1948). The Qumran community lived away from society to the west of Jerusalem. This designation of “the Way” also seems to reference Luke 3:4, when John the Baptist is described as “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” The followers of Jesus are not yet described as “Christians”, as we call ourselves today.
The double calling of Saul’s name is reminiscent of 1 Samuel 3:10, when Samuel, the great prophet of Israel, is called by God in the middle of the night. Here, Saul is called in the midst of a bright light – probably during the daytime, as travelling at night would not be normal. The voice and flash of light from heaven is supposed to hearken back to Luke 9 and the Transfiguration of Jesus.
It is Jesus who appears to Saul on the Damascus road. Even though Acts doesn’t consider Saul (later known as Paul) an “apostle”, he certainly does in later books, and Christians throughout history have. He is numbered as one of the apostles because he also saw Jesus and was sent out by Jesus to tell others about salvation.
Saul was knocked over by the presence of God (see a similar thing happen in John 18:6). He arose, not able to see. Physical blindness in Acts often parallels spiritual inability to see or recognize Jesus.
The in-breaking of God into human history has not stopped; and even after Saul, Jesus appears to Ananias in a vision, and tells him exactly where to meet Saul. This story is not just the “Conversion of Saul”, as it is often named. It could also be called “The Faith of Ananias”. He trusts God to go to the place where someone who hates him is staying, someone who has the ability to arrest him, take him at least a week’s journey from home, and imprison him for who knows how long.
Ananias goes to Saul, prays for him, and scales fell from his eyes and Saul was baptized. In becoming baptized, Saul becomes a member of “the Way”. He becomes a follower of Jesus.
9:19b-31 Saul spent time with the believers in Damascus, and preached for Jesus in their synagogues. This was a strange sight – they had all heard about Saul, and how against Jesus he was. Suddenly, his tune entirely changed! It must have been disorienting for both the people who believed in Jesus, and the ones who did not.
Fearful that their biggest supporter and defender was now on the other team, those who did not believe in Jesus decided they should kill Saul – if he isn’t going to be for them, he should not be for anyone. And yet the believers found out, and secreted Saul away. He returned to Jerusalem, where after Barnabas vouched for him, Saul was welcomed into the community of faith in Jesus.
The unrest and disunity that has characterized the last couple of chapters is now gone. Unity and peace have returned to the community of those who follow Jesus. The church is now not just the church in Jerusalem. It has spread throughout all the area that Jesus spent time preaching and teaching in.
9:32-43 Here we have another pairing of male and female stories, similar to the ones that happen in the Gospel of Luke. The story of Tabitha is fuller and has many more details than that of Aeneas. She is the only woman referred to as a “disciple” in Acts – and this is the only use of feminine form of “disciple” (Greek, mathetria) in the New Testament. Here, like in the Gospels with Jesus, the women are primary witnesses to a resurrection. Not only did Tabitha give money, she also worked with her hands for the good of others. When Aeneas is told to “get up and roll up your mat”, there is a two-fold meaning: first, that this is a full healing, in that Aeneas is able to do things after being raised from the dead; and second, that it refers back to Jesus’ healing in John 5.
Tabitha’s healing also refers back to one of Jesus’ miracles (Mark 5); in Acts, Peter says, “Tabitha, qum (pronounced “koom”)”, meaning “Tabitha, get up!” In Mark 5, Jesus says “Talitha, qum”, meaning “Little girl, get up!”
10:1-8 The circle of who believes in Jesus – and who can believe in Jesus – has been widening since the beginning of Acts. Here, it goes out even further. A Roman military commander, Cornelius the Centurion, lives in Caesarea. The town is named for Caesar – it was a port city, prosperous and multi-cultural. Cornelius is part of the occupation of Israel. And yet he believed in God, prayed often, and one day saw a vision from God. Because of the vision, he sent three people to go and bring Peter back from Joppa.
This three-fold set of messengers reflects the messages brought by multiple groups in the Bible. In Genesis 18, Abraham receives three messengers (it is highly disputed who these three are). In Luke 9, at the Transfiguration, there are three messengers with the three disciples – Elijah, Moses, and Jesus.
10:9-23a Peter has a vision, in which he is told to rise, kill and eat animals the Jewish people considered unclean. Peter refused to be associated with anything “unclean”. This alludes to a huge debate among the Jesus followers at this point – is the message of Jesus for all, or is it just for Jewish people? Is it for the Gentiles – who would be considered unclean – or not? The vision tells people that the message of Jesus is for all people. Again, this references the call of Samuel in 1 Samuel 3 – multiple times, Samuel and Peter hear the same message.
10:23b-48 Peter visits Cornelius’ house, where a large crowd has gathered. Presumably, Cornelius invited them. Peter (verse 28) acknowledges the difficulty of the situation – Jews and Gentiles were not to associate with each other. And yet, God has changed that understanding of how humanity is to interact.
Here we have an important literary element. Since this story is the turning point of Acts, more than any other, the story gets told more than once. Cornelius retells, in v. 30-33, what happened in vv. 1-8.
Peter preaches the Gospel – Good News of Jesus – to all who are gathered. He doesn’t hold back.
And suddenly, the gift of the Holy Spirit comes, even onto those who were Gentiles and Romans and occupiers of the land of Israel. The believers were astonished that God could work in this kind of a way. Again, we hear of speaking in tongues (v 46).
Since this happened, Peter was moved to the point of saying that these people – non-Jewish though they were – could be baptized, and if baptized, then members of the followers of Jesus. There is no delineation about who was baptized. In verse 44, we hear that the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. At that time, it would be difficult to have a gathering without all generations, from babies to the oldest people. And so it is easy to infer that in Acts 10, even babies were being baptized. The oldest church bodies in the world – Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox – have always baptized babies. Lutherans continue this practice, because there is not a prohibition in Scripture for baptizing babies, and there does seem to be inference that it happened.
Here we encounter one of the main divisions in Christianity – baptism. Some say that the Spirit must show itself before baptism (because of this passage). Others say the gift of the Holy Spirit comes at or after baptism. There are many, many more divisions within the debate about baptism, but this is one of the biggest.
- How would you respond if someone who had been attacking you and all your friends decided they wanted to be a Christian? How does God call you to respond?
- What might Saul have felt when he was bowled over by the presence of Jesus? What do you think the other people with Saul thought and felt?
- Where do you see unity in the Christian Church? Where do you see division?
- How would you preach the Gospel of Jesus, if someone asked about your faith? What would your 30-second “elevator speech” be? How would you tell the story of Jesus, and why you follow Jesus?