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 6, 2020 – Acts 17-18
17:1-9 Paul and Silas were travelling on the north side of the Aegean Sea, in modern-day northern Greece. They were travelling along the Via Egnatia, which was built in the second century BC by the Romans. The route went from the western side of Greece, on the shores of the southern Adriatic Sea, east to Byzantium (modern-day Istanbul).
Arriving at the capital of the area, Thessalonica (for which we have two letters named after in the New Testament), Paul goes into the synagogue to preach and debate with the Jewish people who gather there.
Paul spent at least three weeks there (we don’t know if the three sabbath days mentioned here were consecutive or not). Jews and Greeks (probably another way of saying “Gentiles”, though in this area many were actually ethnically Greek), men and women, joined Paul and Silas.
Yet again, a mob is born. This confluence of Jesus-followers and faithful Jews is like two waves crashing at each other. In the confusion, Jason’s house is attacked. Jason was a believer in Jesus, and he and others were brought before the authorities. In the ancient world, hosts were responsible not only for the well-being of their guests, as is still the case today, but also for their actions.
The believers are charged with three things – disturbing the peace, not obeying Caesar, and claiming that there is a king other than Caesar. At this time, the Caesar they are referring to is Claudius, who reigned from 41-54 AD.
While the charges (especially the second and third) are severe and worrying, the officials do as is done in other cities; they attempt to quiet things by throwing the accused in jail, and then letting them go quietly at a later time. They do not actually want an issue, but rather to handle things as quietly and easily as possible.
17:10-15 Berea is to the west of Thessalonica, about fifty miles away. Instead of just preaching and teaching once per week, Paul and Silas open Scripture every day with the Jews who are gathered there. All goes well until people from Thessalonica show up and continue their meddling in Berea.
Again, it is the church body that makes the decision about where preachers and missionaries are to go, not the individuals themselves. Silas and Timothy stay in Berea, while Paul is sent to the coast, and then on to Athens, 250 miles to the south.
17:16-34 In Athens, a large and impressive city, Paul goes first to the synagogue. He does this every day, which connects this story more with that of Berea than with Thessalonica.
While there were many philosophers, learned people, and schools of thought in Athens, two of them are the Epicureans and the Stoics. Whether these philosophers talked about in Acts are Jewish people in the synagogue, or Greeks, is unclear.
Paul goes to the Areopagus (literally, “hill of Ares”, the Greek god of war). The Areopagus was both the hill, and the collective council that met on that hill. Paul here speaks as an Athenian orator, speaking to all who gather. As with one earlier speech in Acts, Paul doesn’t mention Jesus by name, though he does talk about someone being raised from the dead. Paul uses the Athenian ideals of logic and reason to try and persuade this group of people. He also shows that he has at least a cursory understanding of Greek thought and history, quoting Epimenides and Aratus, two Greek philosophers, in verse 28.
The people at the Areopagus want to listen to Paul again (Luke’s editorial comment in verse 21 rings true). But some believe, including Damaris (whom we don’t hear about again after this point), and Dionysius.
Dionysius, tradition holds, later became the bishop of Athens. Under Emperor Domitian, whose persecutions of the Christians were terrible and unrivalled up to that point (he reigned over the Roman Empire from AD 81-96), it is thought that Dionysius was martyred for his faith in Jesus. Dionysius is the patron saint of Athens.
18:1-17 Corinth sits on a narrow isthmus between the Gulf of Corinth (to the west, which empties to the Ionian Sea) and the Aegean Sea. The isthmus (Greek for “neck”) is only about four miles across. Since the 6th century BC, people tried to dig a canal across it, but were not able to (the Corinth Canal did open in 1893).
Instead, boats were dragged across the four miles on stone rollers. This saved the longer trip around the Peloponnese peninsula. It also made Corinth an important trading city.
Emperor Claudius ordered the Jews to leave Rome, probably because, as the historian Suetonius says, they were “constantly making disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus” (by which he probably means “Christ”). Paul, who had taken up tentmaking to supply his journeys, meets Priscilla and Aquilla. These two are important to Paul’s work, showing up again in 1 Corinthians and in 2 Timothy.
Silas and Timothy catch up to Paul, and they stay there for a year and a half. Here we see Gallio, the Roman proconsul, not caring about the squabbles between Jews and Christians. He doesn’t care what the differences are, and he also doesn’t care about the violence stirred up between these two groups.
It is not clear why Sosthenes is beaten. Perhaps he was a Christian, or perhaps he was a lead voice in the movement against the Jesus-followers, and because he didn’t get a favorable outcome from Gallio, was beaten by others who did not believe in Jesus. There is a Sosthenes mentioned in 1 Corinthians 1. It is possible this is the same person, or there may have been another person with the same name.
18:18-23 Paul leaves Rome, bringing Priscilla and Aquilla with him part of the way. Paul eventually returns to Antioch, though not without first stopping in Jerusalem. By ending his journey in Antioch, Paul’s actions show that the geographical focus of the church is not Jerusalem.
In verse 23, Paul sets off on yet another trip, his third missionary journey.
18:24-28 Apollos was probably a disciple of the teaching of John the Baptist. He may have actually known John, and travelled from Israel (possibly after John’s dead but before Jesus’) to different areas, eventually landing in Ephesus. It is also possible that he was a disciple of someone who was a disciple of John the Baptist, and did not know him personally. He knew “The Way of the Lord” and taught about Jesus…and yet he did not know about salvation through Jesus.
Priscilla and Aquila took him under their wings and taught him. He became an evangelist as well, preaching the Good News of Jesus in different places.
- When do Christians cause commotion in society? Can this be a good thing? Are there instances when we should intentionally cause commotion?
- How can we listen to people with whom we disagree, and invite them back (as the men of the Areopagus did) and listen more? What good can come from listening to others? What harm can come?
- When and where do you see the Gospel of Jesus not proclaim in its entirety? When do people forget or leave out uncomfortable or difficult parts of Scripture? How can we work to make this not happen?
April 8, 2020 – Acts 19-20
19:1-10 While much of the first part of Acts shows up in the three-year rotating Revised Common Lectionary that forms our readings during worship, Acts 19:1-7 is the last of the book of Acts that we hear in the Lectionary. From 19:8 through the end of the book, we do not hear these on Sunday morning. As such, the latter half of the book may be less familiar than the stories in the first part.
Paul is in the Roman province of Asia. This province is the western portion or modern-day Turkey. At the time of the Romans, it did not refer to the larger continent that we now understand “Asia” as.
With Apollos in Greece, Paul was across the Aegean Sea in the great city of Ephesus (for which the Letter to the Ephesians is later addressed). There, Paul met a group of believers. Like Apollos, they only knew the baptism of John. And yet they are considered “disciples” of Jesus. They did not know about the baptism that Jesus sent the disciples to proclaim, and they did not even know about the Holy Spirit!
At times, John seems like a forgotten character after the beginning of the Gospels. But here near the end of the book of Acts, we find that John’s message had true power; it spread to Alexandria in Egypt, where Apollos was from, and it spread to Ephesus, far away from Jerusalem.
In verse 6 we hear that “the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied”. That they “prophesied” means that they spoke about Jesus, and testified to who he is. Paul considers this a gift to be striven toward (see 1 Corinthians 14:1).
It is interesting that this group “spoke in tongues” – and yet on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4) the apostles “spoke in other tongues”. The Acts 2 instance means foreign languages. The piece here in Acts 19 may simply mean excited or overly-enthusiastic speech, sometimes referred to as “ecstatic speech”. “Speaking in tongues” – either one of these types, is a gift, but must be understood within Paul’s admonition for order in 1 Corinthians 14:39-40. (In the church in Corinth that 1 Corinthians is written to, “speaking in tongues” was done so as to show their high status).
In verse 7, we hear “about twelve of them” doing these things. Twelve is a symbolic number in the Bible, representing the wholeness of the Tribes of Israel.
As an interesting aside, some manuscripts end verse 9 with “…and argued daily in the lecture hall of Tyrranus.” Other manuscripts end that same verse with “…and argued daily in the lecture hall of a certain Tyrranus, from eleven o’clock in the morning to four in the afternoon.” Tyrranus was probably a teacher or the owner of the hall.
19:11-20 While the name of Jesus is powerful, it is not a magic spell. This desire to have the power of Jesus is reminiscent of the story of Simon the Sorcerer in Acts 8. The seven sons of Sceva attempt to use Jesus’ name without believing in him. They have seen the power of Jesus expressed through Paul and others, and yet they do not understand how Jesus works.
The evil spirit basically laughs in their faces. Evil spirits are conversant in the Gospels, as well (see Mark 5, especially). It, too, knows of the power of Jesus, and the power of Jesus shown through Paul. And yet it can also tell that the hearts of the sons of Sceva are not in the right place. It attacks them and drives them out of the house they were in.
Trust in something other than Jesus – magical arts, spell books – are not compatible with Jesus. Jesus’ life, ministry, and mission were open for people to see. Christianity is to be an open religion, without secret practices. All have the ability to access all worship, knowledge, ceremonies, and the like. Christianity is not a religion of hiding, but of shining light so that all may see clearly.
19:21-41 Another riot breaks out in a city where the followers of Jesus are preaching; and again, it breaks out because of their witness to Jesus. Demetrius invokes a message of fear to stir up the crowd. He is afraid that his livelihood will disappear; that his culture will change; that everything he holds dear was worthless. Fear is a great motivator.
Artemis was considered a goddess of fertility. The Temple of Artemis was one of the Seven Wonders of the World, built around 550 BC, and rebuilt about 200 years later after arson damaged it. She – and the temple – were symbols of the city of Ephesus.
The people give into the fear that Demetrius stirs up, and rush into the 24,000 seat theater, pulling along Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s travelling companions. In the rush, all turns to confusion. The Jewish people want Alexander to speak. Yet the people of Ephesus were not able to tell the difference between Jews and Christians readily, so when he does get up to speak, they mistake him for a Christian, and shout all the louder.
The town clerk (whose name we do not know – it is interesting that he is not named, though his speech is similar to Gamaliel’s in chapter 5) gets up to speak. The clerk is afraid that such a large riot would be seen by the Romans as a threat to their authority, and so would either take away privileges afforded to the city, or come in force with soldiers and put down the riot.
20: 1-6 Paul realizes that his time to leave Ephesus has come, and that he should continue on to Macedonia – his plan before the riot. Paul’s route was probably meandering, trying to meet with as many Christians as possible as he made his way through the area.
Paul is never safe; his boldness for Jesus makes him a target. It is possible that the people listed in verse four are bodyguards for his travels – all were likely believers, as well.
Only about 125 miles apart, across the Aegean Sea, the route from Philippi to Troas took five days, probably because a straight line of travel was not possible.
In 20:5-15, the author uses “we” again; see the April 3 notes in chapter 16, where the first of these sections occurs.
20:7-12 Christians meet on the first day of the week for the breaking of the bread; because Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week, that is when they gathered to share the meal of the Lord’s Supper (Holy Communion).
“There were many lamps” may be the author’s attempt to show that Eutychus (whose name means “Lucky”) did not fall asleep because Paul’s preaching was boring, but because of the fumes from the lamps.
This raising takes place within a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. The raising also has parallels to the raising of Tabitha by Peter in Acts 9, and other raisings in the Gospels and Old Testament (Luke 7, 1 Kings 17, 2 Kings 4). The raising of Eutychus seems to enliven Paul – he keeps talking until dawn.
20:13-16 Paul and his companions travel along the western side of modern-day Turkey, jumping back and forth between cities on islands (Mitylene, Samos) and the mainland (Assos, Miletus, “opposite Chios” – Chios is an island). Miletus – south of Ephesus – would set Paul up to continue he journey to Jerusalem without a protracted stay in the large city of Ephesus.
20:17-38 Paul’s farewell speech to the leaders of the church in Ephesus is similar to other farewell speeches in the Bible (see Genesis 49, Deuteronomy 33, Joshua 23-24, and John 17).
Even though Paul is leaving, the work is not done. And, with the work entrusted to them, the believers also take on the responsibility and consequences of that work. Paul reminds them in verse 26 and 27 that death is a possible consequence of following Jesus. This radical message is what they are called to, one that gives life but may also cost them theirs.
While the Gospels do not mention the saying in verse 35, it is possible that Jesus said this. The Gospels do not contain every word of every day that Jesus spent on earth. This saying is similar to one found in other places, like Thucydides (who died around 400 BC) and in the Apocryphal book of Sirach, chapter 4.
Tears are not uncommon in the Bible – crying and weeping are normal human acts.
- What spiritual gifts do you see that you have? Have you been told you have them by others, or did you discover it yourself? Do you see some gifts as more important than others?
- The Bible talks a lot about spirits; the Gospels mention evil spirits (or demons) often as well; our modern culture does not pay attention to those things. How can we reconcile this? What do you think about evil spirits?
- Where do you see fear in daily life? In our politics? In our churches? How can we live not out of fear, but in hopeful love?
- Where have you seen resurrection from death? This may be physical or not – resurrections of spirit, emotions, and social connectedness are all real and needed in our world.
April 10, 2020 – Acts 21-22
21:1-16 The first part of this chapter is the third of four “we” sections in the book of Acts, extending from verse 1 through verse 18. Recounted here is the journey to Jerusalem from the meeting with the Ephesian elders at Miletus.
We hear about Philip the Evangelist, one of the seven chosen in Acts 6 for service. While we are told that his daughters have the gift of prophecy, this is not elaborated on at all. We do not know exactly what the author Luke was referencing – were they prophets in the sense that they proclaimed the message of Jesus (that is, were they preachers and evangelists), or were they prophets in that they spoke the word of God in respect to the future? Perhaps there are other possibilities, too.
It is possible that we get a sense that the latter option is closer to correct based on the following verse (10). Agabus, also a prophet, came to the house of Philip. He bound his own hands and feet, proclaiming that the Holy Spirit told him Paul would be bound in Jerusalem by the Jews, and hand him over to the Gentiles.
The people are fearful – they do not want to lose Paul. And yet Paul is unafraid of anything that might come his way, because his trust in God is so strong.
21:17-26 Arriving in Jerusalem, the third missionary journey Paul undertook now comes to an end. As happened earlier in Acts, when the believers come together, they recount the ways that God worked through them in order to advance the Gospel of Jesus Christ to more people.
The tension that has existed between Jewish and Gentile Christians continues. It was not fully solved by any of the previous councils, debates, or gatherings. Also, we hear that word of Paul’s teaching made its way back to Jerusalem before Paul could get there. One thing that has been relayed is that Paul does not care about the law of Moses, and about the four restrictions the elders put on Gentile believers earlier in the story.
The elders in Jerusalem ask Paul to allay the fears of the Jewish Christians, by undergoing certain ritual acts. Paul acquiesces to their request, so as to keep the body of believers whole and united.
21:27-36 Some of the Jewish communities in Asia (that is, modern-day western Turkey) had not been receptive to the message of the Gospel, as we saw in earlier chapters. Some of these individuals travelled from their homes in Asia to Jerusalem. While it was a long journey, this would not have been a strange journey to make; while they may have done it explicitly to oppose Paul and the Christians, it is possible they went simply to go to the Temple.
The charges that are leveled against Paul in the riot are similar to those in chapter 6 against Stephen. The riot is reported to the Roman tribune (probably the military tribune of the area, a local commander who would be in charge of a legion, which was a few thousand soldiers). The tribune calls some centurions (in charge of 100 soldiers), and they go into the crowd to ascertain what is happening.
Paul is bound with two chains – reminiscent of Agabus’ prophecy earlier in the chapter. The tribune was not able to understand what was going on, so he ordered Paul brought to the barracks so he could sort things out.
21:37-22:5 The tribune assumed that Paul was an Egyptian rebel. Apparently, that person did not speak Greek; or if it was a Jewish zealot that some guess the Roman was actually referring to, that person would not speak in Greek, even if they could. Paul can and does speak Greek, and tells the tribune he is a Jew (he omits, until later, that he is also a Roman citizen).
Paul switches to speaking in Hebrew, giving them background on himself. Much of this we have already read earlier in the book of Acts. He makes sure to mention his teacher was Gamaliel, whom we hear about in chapter 5.
22:6-16 In verse 9, we hear that those who were with Paul saw the light but did not hear the voice – in chapter 9, we hear that they did hear the voice, but didn’t see anyone. It is possible that Luke is referring to “hearing” as “understanding” in this place. Whatever the case, those who were with Paul on the road knew something strange was happening, but they could not fully comprehend it.
Paul tries to relate to the zealous Jews by stating that Ananias was well-known in Damascus as a very devout person. Even devout people, Paul argues, can believe in Jesus.
22:17-21 Paul does not hold back in confessing what he has seen and what he has done. Paul is not shy that he was the one overseeing the stoning of Stephen, years before this point. And he also sees visions of Jesus.
22:22-30 The crowd listened, up to the point where Paul was talking about seeing visions of Jesus, and that Jesus told him to go and preach to the Gentiles. This enraged the crowd. The tribune instructed that he be brought inside and flogged until he told them everything (in a more clear and concise manner than he was doing).
After being tied up for the flogging, Paul slips to the centurion that he is a Roman citizen. Roman citizens were afforded special status; they could not be beaten or flogged without charge. There were multiple ways to become a citizen – Paul is one by birth (through his father), and the tribune had to buy his citizenship. Being one from birth would shock the tribune, one reason being that Paul’s family may be important – perhaps more important than his. In a hierarchical society, this was disturbing to the tribune.
Seeing this no longer as a simple Jewish religious matter, but as something more pressing knowing Paul was a Roman citizen, he released Paul and instructed the Jewish leaders that they would meet, in order to figure out what was truly going on.
- What do you think about prophecies in our modern-day society? What about visions?
- Have you ever been in a riot? What happened?
- Why would Paul hold back that he was a Roman citizen?
- How can hierarchical societies be helpful? What about purely democratic societies? How can both of these hurt individuals? How can they help or hurt the prospects of preaching the Gospel?