Reading Assignment: Acts Chapters 15 -19
This section of Acts begins with the dissension between “certain individuals from Judea” and Paul and Barnabas over the issue of circumcision. The missionary apostles assert they have a clear mandate to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the whole world. And as said last week, once the whole world is involved, religious life will look quite different for followers who have been nurtured in the Judaic way of life.
Circumcision is a high hurdle to ask new converts from the gentile world to clear. But “some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.’” Paul doesn’t rebut them by talking about the pain of the procedure, or its negative impact on selling their message to the gentiles, instead he appeals to their own evolving theology. “Why place on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?” For Paul it is about the deeper conversation about law and grace. “We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”(15:11)
Scenes in these five chapters:
The Jerusalem Council reacts to Paul’s mission (14:27-15:5)
The Jerusalem Council: Evidence that demands a verdict (15:6-12)
The Jerusalem Council: The Verdict of James (15:13-35)
Interlude: Paul Beyond Roman Asia (15:36-16:10)
Paul’s Mission to the Philippians (16:11-40)
Conflict and Conversion Among Diaspora Jews (17:1-15)
Paul’s Athenian Mission (17:16-34)
Paul’s Corinthian Mission (18:1-17)
Interlude: Paul Returns to Ephesus (18:24-19:7)
Paul’s Ephesian Mission (19:8-41)
One commentator divides Acts into two parts: The Narrative of Conversion (1:1-15:12) and the Narrative of Consecration (15:14-28:28) In the second part, we hear again from the Jerusalem perspective, this time through James, Peter’s successor. Hebrew scripture is recited then interpreted. The word “listen!” is important. It is not enough to hear the ancient words if one is not open-minded enough to listen deeply for new truths heretofore not considered. The new thing that God is doing was proclaimed by the prophet Amos. God is rebuilding the household of Israel by finding a place for “all the Gentiles who are called by my name”. The call upon the Savior’s ‘name’ confirms God’s promise to bless “all the families of earth”. This is the mission of the Church. And the metaphor of houses, households, and constructing or making them is pervasive. Look for it.
POINT TO PONDER
From chapter 15: A theological process
This chapter distills a long and reflective process characterized by sharp and sometimes heated conflict within the church. The importance of the theological controversy is how this point of diversion from “the way things have always been” allows the Way to grow and evolve. As a literary theme, the process of discernment among a diverse group of people with strongly differing opinions is important in understanding the growth of the church. Acts details the names of dozens and dozens of early church leaders who advance the expansion of Christian faith. While pleading for unity, the reality was never uniformity.
From chapter 16
Paul and Barnabas part ways after a long stay in Antioch. They have a heated disagreement over their mutual friend John Mark, who “abandoned them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work.” The sense is from Paul that John Mark is a shirker, but Barnabas the encourager decides to take Mark with him and sails away to Cyprus. Paul chose Silas and set out through Syria, Cilicia, Derbe, and Lystra, where he meets Timothy, a Greek. Because he wants Timothy to be well received by the Jews they will be visiting, he takes Timothy and has him circumcised. They go through Phrygia, Galatia, Mysia, Troas, Macedonia, and Philippi, where they get into trouble for messing with someone’s profit-making, fortune-telling slave girl.
From the verses in chapter 17
In his Athenian mission Paul is distressed by the presence everywhere of idols. He addresses two distinct groups in Athens: the synagogue of the city and the open-air marketplace of the general Greek population. The misunderstandings that ensue from his speeches in the marketplace lead him to seek out the Areopagus, where he can discuss his beliefs with the city’s intellectuals. It is a forum for “new teaching” to be discussed. Does this give us some insight into how we might fight the anti-intellectual bias prevalent in some corners of Christianity?
From the verses in chapter 18
In his Corinthian mission, Paul works by day in the leather shop of Priscilla and Aquila. As Paul is rebuilding the “household of faith” he is also constructing literal “homes” in the form of tents. While his mission is still centered in the city’s Jewish synagogue where he teaches, there is indication of a transition to another venue – namely, a “household” of Gentiles attached to the synagogue (18:4-8). He makes a “friend” in high places, as he receives favorable treatment from proconsul Gallio, who intervenes to rule that his church planting activity falls within the protection offered to Judaism’s adherents. Still, Paul disassociates his mission from the Jewish synagogue and newly associates it with “the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God” (18:7) – recalling the Amos prophecy of a “re-housed” Israel and its interpretation by James (15:16-21). This entire scene brings to the fore an important theme for Luke, which he presents in the voice of James. What will happen to their membership in God’s covenantal people if Paul’s mission leads to not Judaizing repentant Gentiles, but “gentilizing” repentant Jews in the Diaspora synagogues? (15:19-21, 28-29)
From the verses in chapter 19
Chapter nine begins with Paul confronting some followers who only knew the baptism of repentance preached by John, and had not heard of the Holy Spirit. They were then baptized in the name of Jesus and received the Spirit. The Spirit is the star of Paul’s mission in Ephesus, and is in constant conflict with “spirits” and the interests of various business folk who profit from the making of idols. The conflict erupts into a public disturbance which a man named Alexander says poses “a danger that we will be charged with rioting today … there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.” This sets up the narrative for Paul’s next move … a pilgrimage to Jerusalem which beings with chapter 20.
QUESTIONS FOR THIS WEEK
- “My brothers, listen to me!” (15:13) When James speaks to his friends within the congregation and council he pleads for deep listening, not just a yielding of the floor. Luke presents to us a great model of contrasting threads in Christian faith that must be woven together. There is the Jamesian/Peter thread which binds us closely to the history of membership in a covenant community, which values responsible and responsive action. Holding it in tension is the Pauline thread that Jesus saves us for eternal life through grace, not our works or any boast of “membership”. Are you mostly a Jamesian or Pauline Christian thinker?
- “So that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him” (17:27). This is Paul’s belief about why God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth and put within them the longing to know the holy. Do you believe that people of every land and culture have an innate longing to reach out to God?
- In 19:19 there is a public book burning as the apostles challenge the practitioners of magic to abandon their professions and turn to be baptized in the name of Jesus. Do you see any redeeming reason for this act? What dangers might ensue from this example in scripture?
- The protest of Demetrius (19:27) is based on the view that Paul is a threat to the profit margins of these craftsmen. He organizes a protest movement against the way informed by a perspective that links religious and money. In his own core beliefs, as he defends them, Demetrius understands the bottom line of a local economy built on the perpetuation of the cult of Artemis to be essential to defend for the good of his people. Do you see any parallels in current day politics and economics?