June 29: Acts 13:52; 15:28

Acts 13:52; 15:28

In the previous notes we examined the role of the Spirit in guiding and empowering the early Christian mission. A key aspect of the Spirit-theme in Luke-Acts is also how the Spirit is manifested in the effect (and result) of the mission. The proclamation of the Gospel leads to individuals coming to trust in Jesus, and to be baptized, and thus to their receiving (and being filled with) the Holy Spirit. In addition, however, there is the broader effect of the mission on the Community of believers. We see this, for example, in the various expressions of unity among believers, which is closely connected with the presence of the Spirit. An especially significant instance is the scene of the prayer-speech in 4:23-31, which climaxes with a powerful manifestation of the Spirit within the Community.

In the middle of the narrative of Paul’s first missionary journey, at the conclusion of his great sermon-speech at Pisidian Antioch, there is another important reference to the Spirit. This episode (13:13-52) is the keystone section of the missionary narrative, and embodies the shift—so important to the Acts narrative—from a mission aimed at Jews to one aimed at non-Jews (Gentiles) in the Greco-Roman world. Within the drama of the narrative, this shift is expressed in vv. 44-51 (with the citation of Isa 49:6). It builds upon the earlier episodes of Jewish opposition and persecution, as well as the key Cornelius episode in chap. 10 (conversion of a pro-Jewish ‘God-fearer’), which is echoed here in v. 43.

Jewish opposition forced Paul and Barnabas out of Pisidian Antioch (vv. 50-51), but the ultimate result of their missionary work there is the continued spread of the Gospel and conversion of both Jews and Gentiles. It is worth considering how this is framed in the narrative:

    • The response of Gentile believers (v. 48-49):
      (a) rejoicing [vb xai/rw]
      (b) acceptance of the Gospel and conversion [trust, vb pisteu/w]

      • The response of (Jewish) opponents (v. 50)
      • The response of Paul and Barnabas to this opposition (v. 51)
    • The response of [Jewish] believers (v. 52)
      (a) rejoicing [“were filled with joy”, e)plhrou=nto xara=$]
      (b) the presence of the Spirit [“(filled) with the holy Spirit”]

It is best to understand the “learners” (i.e., disciples, maqhtai/) in v. 52 as followers of Paul and Barnabas’ mission-work—primarily Jewish believers and converts. It is comparable to the reaction of Jewish believers to the conversion of Cornelius and his household (10:45ff and throughout chap. 11). Common to the response of the Gentile and Jewish believers is joy/rejoicing (xara/ / xai/rw), which is the first aspect (a) in the outline above. The second aspect (b) properly summarizes the early Christian mission itself (cf. Jesus’ declaration in 1:8): (i) the proclamation of the Gospel, and (ii) the presence (and power) of the Spirit. On the connection between the Spirit and joy/rejoicing, cf. especially Luke 10:21.

The essential point of this section in the narrative is that the wider Community is blessed and strengthened by the inclusion of the Gentile converts. As is expressed by the concluding words, the Jewish believers were “filled with the holy Spirit” by this success of the mission and the inclusion of Gentile believers.

The theme of Jewish-Gentile unity within early Christianity reaches its dramatic climax in chapter 15 and the council held in Jerusalem to address the issue of the Gentile converts (the result of Paul/Barnabas’ mission-work). Support for the mission is expressed through the twin speeches by Peter (15:7-11) and James (vv. 13-21). The manner of expression in each of these speeches differs, but the basic message is the same, recognizing that the conversion of the Gentiles is part of God’s ordained plan for His people.

On this point, cf. the wording in 13:48, where the Gentile converts are characterized as those “having been arranged [i.e., appointed, by God] unto (the) life (of the) Ages [i.e. eternal life]”. Similarly, this predetermination of the Gentile believers’ salvation is implied by Peter in 15:7-8 (cf. also 10:34-35). Peter emphasizes again, in v. 8, that the legitimacy of the Gentile conversions was confirmed by the coming of the Spirit upon the household of Cornelius (10:44ff). The testimony of Paul and Barnabas (15:12) regarding their mission to the Gentiles gives further witness to Peter’s message.

The definitive statement of the Jerusalem Church on this matter is summarized in vv. 22-29, presented as a letter intended for the new (predominantly Gentile) congregations in Syria and nearby Asia (Cilicia, Pisidia). This section begins with the words:

“Then it seemed (good) to the (one)s sent forth [i.e. apostles] and the elders, together with the whole called out (Community) [e)kklhsi/a]…to send…” (v. 22)

This emphasizes that the decision is a unified response by the entire Community of believers—that is, an expression of Christian unity. Further on in the letter itself (v. 28), the unity of their response is said also to include the presence of the Spirit:

“For it seemed (good) to the holy Spirit and us…”

Beyond the association of the Spirit with the unity of believers, this verse also re-affirms the presence of the Spirit among Gentile believers and converts.

June 28: Acts 9:17; 11:24; 13:2-4ff

Acts 9:17; 11:24; 13:2-4ff

In these daily notes, focusing on the Spirit-theme in Luke-Acts, we turn now to the missionary work of Paul. This narrative strand is introduced in the second division of the book, beginning with the account of Paul’s conversion (9:1-19), and concluding with the completion of his first missionary journey (chaps. 13-14) and the council held at Jerusalem (chap. 15). Paul’s first missionary journey was made with Barnabas as his partner.

The role of the Spirit in this journey is established by the author at several points in the narrative. First, we have the information that both Paul and Barnabas, prior to their missionary journey, were filled by the Spirit. In the case of Paul (Saul), this is indicated within the conversion episode, where Ananias lays hands on him and prays/declares that “…you would be filled by [the] holy Spirit” (plhsqh=|$ pneu/mato$ a(gi/ou) (9:17). It is not stated that Paul received the Spirit, but we can certainly assume it from what follows in the narrative. As for Barnabas, the same is stated directly by the summary narration: “…he was a good man, full [plh/rh$] of (the) holy Spirit and trust” (11:24).

To say that Paul and Barnabas were “filled” by the Spirit, simply means that they were genuine believers (all such believers received the Spirit), and that they were empowered for active missionary work (involving the proclamation of the Gospel, supported by the working of miracles). Paul’s initial mission-work, begun shortly after his conversion, is narrated in 9:19b-30. We are not informed of similar work by Barnabas, beyond what is narrated in 11:22-26, which is included primarily to establish the site of Antioch as a (Hellenistic) Christian center, and to introduce the pairing of Barnabas and Paul (vv. 25-26).

The author also cleverly introduces the Spirit-theme in relation, specifically, to the congregation(s) at Antioch, through the brief episode narrated in 11:27-30. This is a transitional narrative, meant to join the Paul/Barnabas/Antioch strand with the Peter/Jerusalem strand in chap. 12. It introduces the idea of the suffering of the Jerusalem believers which would be developed in chap. 12; but it also prepares the ground-work for the introductory narrative (13:1-3) to the missionary journey of Paul/Barnabas.

In 11:28, a minor detail is noted: an otherwise unknown early Christian prophet (v. 27) named Abagus (Hagab) foretells the coming of a great famine. The specific information about this famine is only tangential to the narrative, but the comment that the prediction came true in the reign of the Emperor Claudius (v. 28b) serves to underscore the inspired character of the prophecy. Indeed, it is said that Abagus “marked” (i.e., indicated, made known, vb shmai/nw) the coming famine “through the Spirit” (dia\ tou= pneu/mato$).

This sets the stage for the narrative introduction to the missionary journey of Paul/Barnabas in 13:1-3. The two men were already missionaries “filled/full of the Spirit”, yet they were further chosen to go out on a special missionary tour into the wider Greco-Roman world (Asia Minor). Their selection and confirmation as missionaries for this purpose took place in a gathering of believers at Antioch (v. 1):

“And, in their doing service to the Lord and fasting, the holy Spirit said: ‘Mark off for me Bar-Neba and Ša’ûl unto the work (for) which I have called to them’.”

It is not specified precisely how this information was communicated to the believers at this gathering, but, based on the earlier Agabus episode (cf. above), we can fairly assume that the oracular utterance by a prophet, speaking with the voice of the Spirit, was involved.

In any case, the believers responded faithfully to this directive, and ‘set apart’ Barnabas and Paul (Saul) for the designated missionary service. A three-part ritual ministry was involved (v. 3): (i) a time of fasting, (ii) prayer, and (iii) the laying on of hands. Based on other occurrences of the ritual gesture (5:12; 6:6; 8:17-19; 9:17; 19:6, etc), the laying of hands was meant to confer (or at least to confirm) the presence and power of the Spirit. That the prayer was answered, and the ritual effective, is indicated by what follows in verse 4—properly the beginning of the missionary narrative-complex in chaps. 13-14—for it shows that the Spirit was indeed present with Paul and Barnabas, guiding their journey from the outset:

“Then they, (hav)ing been sent out under the holy Spirit, went down to Seleukia, and (from) there to Kypros…” (v. 4)

This is an important aspect of the Lukan Spirit-theme which the author has only begun developing at this point in the narrative. In the book of Acts, it was introduced in the Philip episode with the Ethiopian official (8:29, 39), and touched upon again in the conversion episodes of Paul and Cornelius (9:10-17; 10:19-20ff). Within the broader context of Luke-Acts, it was introduced in relation to the person of Jesus, at the beginning of his ministry (4:1, 14), where he is led by the Spirit into the desert (to endure temptation) and then back into Galilee.

The presence of the Spirit will be mentioned numerous times in the narratives of Paul’s missionary journeys. The first such instance is at 13:9, where the Spirit’s presence empowers Paul (“[hav]ing been filled by the holy Spirit”) to confront the Jewish magician and ‘false prophet’ (Bar-Yeshua), and to speak against him with divine authority (and miracle-working power), vv. 10-11. As throughout the book of Acts, this working of miracles (‘signs and wonders’) is meant to support the proclamation of the Gospel, as it does here, where the Cypriot proconsul on Paphos (Sergius Paulus) responds to the Gospel and believes.

Notes on Prayer: Acts 12:5, 12; 13:3

Acts 12:5, 12; 13:3

The two narrative strands in chapters 9-14, focusing (in turn) on the early missionary work of Peter and Paul, respectively, share something of the common Lukan theme of prayer. We saw this in the conversion-episodes of Paul (Saul) and Cornelius (discussed in last week’s study), but it is also expressed more directly in relation to the apostles’ missionary work.

In the case of Peter, this relates to his arrest and imprisonment (12:3-5), part of a brief period of persecution instigated against the early Christians by King Herod Agrippa (12:1ff). This persecution is introduced most vividly in the narrative, setting the scene for the dramatic episode that follows:

“And, at (about) that time, Herod the king, to harm certain (one)s from the called-out (Community) [e)kklhsi/a], threw (his) hands upon (them), and he took away (the life of) Ya’acob, the brother of Yohanan, by (the) sword.” (vv. 1-2)

As in the case of Jesus, Peter’s arrest took place around the time of Passover. He was being held in prison until after the festival (cp. Mk 14:1-2 par), where he would be presented for a public ‘trial’ and execution. During this time, we read that the Jerusalem believers were praying for Peter:

“So (on the one hand) Peter was (being) kept in the (prison-)guard, but (on the other hand) a speaking out toward [i.e. prayer to] God was coming to be (made) intensely under [i.e. by] the called out (Community) [e)kklhsi/a] over him.” (v. 5)
The “one the one hand…one the other” framework reflects the me\nde/ syntactical construction in Greek.

Here in the narrative, we see how the noun e)kklhsi/a comes to be used on a more regular basis to refer to the Community of believers—both in Jerusalem and beyond. The fundamental meaning of the term is that of an assembly or gathering which people are called out to attend; however, in the early Christian context, it must be understood in the sense of being called out—by God, through the proclamation of the Gospel—to join the Community of believers.

In earlier studies, we saw how prayer was an important way of demonstrating (and affirming) this common bond of unity among believers. And so it also is here. The Community had been harmed and disrupted by a time of periodic persecution (8:1-4ff); several of its members had been put to death, including the apostle James, and now another apostle (Peter) is suffering and in danger of being killed. This aspect of missionary work has always been the focus of prayer, and rightly so. We do not have the words of the believers’ prayers in this regard, but they likely echoed the great prayer-speech of 4:23-31, along with specific requests for the protection and deliverance of Peter.

The Jewish believers in Jerusalem would already have been making special gatherings together because of the festival time of Passover. The danger to Peter now gave these gatherings a new sense of purpose, and a focal point for prayer.

Peter’s deliverance from prison is narrated in the verses that follow (vv. 6-11), clearly indicating that his rescue (by supernatural / Angelic means) is an answer to prayer. When Peter arrives at the house of Mary, mother of John Mark, the believers there are once again engaged in prayer (v. 12). This would be an example of an early house-church in Jerusalem, in which a group of believers would regularly meet; here it is described as a place “in which an ample (number) having gathered together (were) also speaking out toward (God) [i.e. were gathered together and were praying]”.

In v. 5 the noun proseuxh/ is used, but with the full sense of the expression “speaking out toward God [pro\$ to\n qeo/n]” being specified. Here in v. 12, it is the related verb proseu/xomai, with the idea of their speech directed “toward God” being implied. Soon enough, they realize that their prayers (regarding Peter) have been answered. When our prayer is focused on God’s Kingdom and our mission on its behalf, we can rest assured that such prayer, likewise, will be heard and answered.

The purpose of the Community’s prayer in the case of Paul (and Barnabas) is rather different. The setting is a congregational (house-church) meeting in Antioch (13:1), a city far away from Jerusalem, but the second most prominent early center of Christianity, and a focal point for many Greek-speaking believers. During one such meeting, “in their doing service to the Lord and fasting”, the believers there were instructed (by the Holy Spirit) to set apart (lit. “mark off from [others]”, vb a)fori/zw) Paul and Barnabas for special work as missionaries (v. 2). On the role of the Spirit in this process (also v. 4), cf. my upcoming daily note on the subject. What is important to point out here is close connection between the Spirit and prayer, and how the prayer of early believers relates to the Spirit-theme of Luke-Acts.

In verse 3 we read:

“Then, (hav)ing fasted and (hav)ing spoken out toward (God) and (hav)ing set th(eir) hands upon them, they released (them) from (the gathering) [i.e. sent them off on their mission].”

Prayer (again the vb proseu/xomai) is the central component of a three-part ritual ministry to confirm and prepare Paul and Barnabas for their work. The prayer was preceded by a time of fasting, and then followed by the laying on of hands. From what we have seen elsewhere in the narrative regarding the ritual gesture of laying hands on a person (5:12; 6:6; 8:17-19; 9:17; 19:6, etc), this was meant to confer (or at least to confirm) the presence and power of the Spirit with Paul and Barnabas. If so, then the gesture (and the prayer) of believers seems to have been answered, for in v. 4 we see that the Spirit is directly guiding the missionaries on their journey.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 48 (Part 1)

Psalm 48

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsj (vv. 1-9 [1-8])

Much like the two prior Psalms, Ps 48 is a hymn on the Kingship of YHWH, with special emphasis on Jerusalem (Mt. Zion) as the King’s city. It continues the theme of YHWH as King over all the earth (and the nations), but who has a special covenant relationship with Israel, with His throne in the sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple. This is an important component of Israelite (and Judean) royal theology. As long as Israel (and its king) remains faithful to the covenant, YHWH will continue to provide protection. The emphasis on Zion as a fortified location (on a hill) is a way of expressing this idea of God’s protection.

This Psalm consists of two stanzas (vv. 2-9 [1-8], 10-15 [9-14]), with a Selah (hl*s#) pause indicator marking the end of the first stanza. The meter is irregular, but the first stanza tends to follow a 2-beat couplet (or quatrain) format, with a brief shift to a 3+2 meter, before returning to a 2-beat quatrain in the closing verse.

The musical direction in the superscription is quite brief, somewhat oddly indicating that this musical composition (romz+m!) is also a “song” (ryv!). On the attribution to the “sons of Qorah”, cf. the introduction to the study on Psalm 42/43.

Verses 2-9 [1-8]

Verse 2 [1]

“Great (indeed is) YHWH
and very much to be praised,
in (the) city of our Mighty (One),
(on the) mountain of His holiness.”

The second couplet emphasizes the mountain location of Jerusalem, which is somewhat misleading, since the city scarcely is located on a mountain, but rather a more modest hill. However, in Canaanite religious tradition, the Creator El (“[the] Mighty [One]”) resided on a great cosmic mountain. Any local mountain could represent this dwelling of El. The same was true in terms of Israel’s view of the dwelling of El-Yahweh. He could be seen as present upon any local mountain (such as Sinai/Horeb), or even a modest hilltop site such as Zion/Jerusalem.

Indeed, the original fortified hilltop site captured by the Israelites was the location for both the Temple and royal Palace-complex. While the name Zion (/oYx!, ‚iyyôn) could refer to the expanded city of Jerusalem, it properly signifies the smaller fortress-site (the “City of David”) where the Temple and Palace were built.

Verse 3 [2]

“Beautiful (in its) height,
(the) joy of all (the) earth:
Mount ‚iyyôn, (on the) sides of ‚aphôn,
meeting-place of (the) great King!”

The quatrain in this verse is composed of another 2-beat (2+2) couplet followed by a 3-beat (3+3) couplet. The first couplet emphasizes both the beauty of Zion and its elevated location (indicated by the rare noun [on)—so stated in the first line. Both of these attributes are figurative, rather than meant as a realistic description of the city itself. Both its beauty and its elevation are due to the dwelling of YHWH there. Zion thus represents, from a symbolic and ritual standpoint, the cosmic dwelling of El-Yahweh, traditionally understood as a great mountain filling the heavens. As the dwelling-place of God, Zion also brings joy, i.e., is a cause for rejoicing (cocm=), for the entire earth.

The second couplet makes two points. The first point is that Zion is on the “sides” (dual of hk*r@y+) of Zaphon. The noun /opx* in Hebrew commonly means “north”, though it literally refers to something “hidden” or stored away. However, in Canaanite tradition, a local manifestation of El’s cosmic mountain-dwelling (and also that of Baal-Haddu) was Mt. Zaphon, usually identified with Mt. Casius (modern Jebel el-Aqra’). This great mountain was certainly to the ‘far north’ of Jerusalem, and a suitable location for the dwelling of the Great King (El-Yahweh). El’s mountain-dwelling (also envisioned as a great domed tent) was traditionally understood as existing in the ‘far north’, which may explain the origins of the name Zaphon (/opx*). Clearly, Mt. Zion is being identified here with the cosmic dwelling of El, according to Canaanite (and Israelite) religious tradition.

In the final line, the hy`r=q! could be translated flatly as “city” or “town”, parallel with ryu! in v. 2 [1]. However, I have chosen to translate it here in a way that preserves what is likely the original meaning, as a “meeting place”. In this case, it is a place where the people can “meet” the Great King (YHWH), referring to the religious ritual surrounding the Temple and its sanctuary.

Verse 4 [3]

“(The) Mightiest (is) among her forts,
being known as a place set (up) high.”

This is a rather difficult couplet, largely due to the attempt of expressing a relatively complex matrix of ideas within the confines of a short 2-beat couplet. But the basic meaning seems to be that it is the presence of YHWH, dwelling among the fortifications of the city, that gives to Zion (Jerusalem) its secure position and protection. Remember that Zion properly refers to the old Canaanite hilltop fortress-site that was captured by Israel (in the time of David). The ancient fortifications, and elevated position, gave to the city some measure of protection against invaders and hostile peoples. However, Zion was scarcely a high mountain (like Zaphon), and the characteristic here of its being a bG`c=m!, literally a “place set high up”, is something of an exaggeration. Its figurative high elevation (and thus its secure position) is due to the presence of YHWH.

Even though the Divine name (hwhy, YHWH) was used earlier in the Psalm, the occurrence of <yh!l)a$ here may be another example of substitution (for YHWH) in the ‘Elohist’ Psalms (cf. also the closing line of v. 9 [8] below).

Verses 5-6 [4-5]

“For, see! the kings are (gather)ed as appointed,
they passed by (the city) as one;
they saw (it and) thus were astounded,
they were terrified and (fle)d in fear.”

With this verse, there is a metrical shift in the stanza, from a predominantly 2-beat (2+2) couplet format to a 3+2 meter. The idea of kings gathering together, meeting at an appointed time and place, suggests that they have come together for a hostile purpose (cf. Psalm 2:1-2). The emphasis on protection in the previous verses certainly makes a military scenario probable here. The site of the grandeur and elevated position of Zion (Jerusalem) fills the kings with astonishment (vb Hm^T*). This turns to utter fear, causing them to flee in terror (vbs lh^B* and zp^j*). Their reaction, of course, is properly due to the presence of YHWH in the city.

Verses 7-8 [6-7]

“Trembling seized hold of them (right) there,
writhing like (that of one) giving birth;
(as when) by (the) east wind (they) are shattered,
(the proud) ships of Tarshish.”

The fear and trembling (du^r^) that take hold of the kings is here described with a pair of picturesque illustrations: (1) a woman in writhing pain (ly!j) while giving birth, and (2) trading ships (filled with goods) that are torn apart at sea by a powerful east-wind.

Verse 9 [8]

“Even that which we have heard,
so (now) we have seen (it),
in (the) city of YHWH of (the) armies,
in (the) city of our Mighty (One)!
(The) Mightiest will make her firm
until (the) distant (future)!”

As in the opening verse, so also at the close of the stanza we have a 2-beat (2+2+2+2) quatrain, though this meter is skewed slightly by the third line (which may be textually suspect [cf. Kraus, pp. 472-3]). The idea seems to be that the residents of Jerusalem (and Judah) have heard of how YHWH protected His city (and its people) in times past, but now they have witnessed this first hand. There is no way of knowing if any specific historical incident is in view, though the famous attack on the city by Sennacherib during the Assyrian invasion of Judah (701 B.C.) naturally comes to mind.

To preserve the poetic meter, I have translated the title toab*x= hwhy according to its abbreviated form, i.e., “YHWH of (the) armies”. However, the full sense of the expression must be understood according to its likely meaning as a sentence-title that retains the verbal force of hwhy, something like “(the One who) creates the (heavenly) armies”. From the ancient Israelite religious standpoint, once YHWH came to be used as the regular name for the Creator God (El), the expression is perhaps best understood as “YHWH, (commander) of (the heavenly) armies”, emphasizing His control over the heavens (forces of nature, Angelic beings, etc).

The final (3-beat) line is a declaration of praise to YHWH, confirming that He will protect His city, and continue to make it secure, far into the distant future (i.e., for all time). Almost certainly this Psalm well pre-dates the fall of Jerusalem (and the destruction of the Temple) in 587. It is interesting to consider how Israelites and Jews would explain this hymn from the standpoint of the Exile. The obvious theological explanation is that YHWH’s protection is contingent upon Israel/Judah remaining faithful to the covenant. As long as the nation, and its capital city of Jerusalem, remained faithful, God’s protection of her would last forever.

References above marked “Kraus” are to Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalmen, 1. Teilband, Psalmen 1-59, 5th ed., Biblischer Kommentar series (Neukirchener Verlag: 1978); English translation in Psalms 1-59, A Continental Commentary (Fortress Press: 1993).

Saturday Series: Acts 6:1-8:4 (continued)

Acts 6:1-8:4, continued

At the heart of the Stephen episode in Acts 6:1-8:4 is the great sermon-speech in chapter 7. Last week, we looked at this speech from the critical standpoint of the literary and thematic structure of the narrative. This establishes the overall setting and background of the speech, as well as the Narrative (Introduction) which precedes it in 6:8-15, according to the outline:

    • Narrative Introduction—the speech follows upon the main narrative (or first part of it) in 6:8-15, with the question of the High Priest to Stephen in 7:1.
    • Introductory Address (7:2-42a)—instead of Gospel kerygma, we find here a lengthy summary of Israelite history, from the call of Abraham to the Exodus and the incident of the Golden Calf.
    • Citation from Scripture (vv. 42b-43)—from Amos 5:25-27.
    • Exposition and Application (vv. 44-50), including a second Scripture citation (from Isa 66:1-2) which is parallel to the prior passage.
    • Concluding Exhortation (vv. 51-53), with a faint kerygmatic detail in v. 52b.
    • Narrative Summary—the narrative continues/concludes in 7:54-8:1a.

Our study this week will focus upon the speech proper.

Introductory Address (7:2-42a)

Stephen begins with a vocative address, similar to that of Peter in his great Pentecost speech (e.g., in Acts 2:14, 22, 29; see also the beginning of Paul’s address in Acts 22:1):

Ándres adelphoí kai patéres, akoúsate
“Men, Brothers and Fathers—hear!”

Instead of the kerygmatic (i.e., Gospel proclamation) phrases and statements found in the prior sermon-speeches of Acts, Stephen here delivers a lengthy summary of Israelite history in “deuteronomic style”, extending from the call of Abraham to the Exodus and the incident of the Golden Calf; for Old Testament parallels to such an historical summary, see Joshua 24; Psalm 78, 105; Ezekiel 20:5-44; Nehemiah 9:7-27, and also note the historical treatment given in the Damascus Document [CD] 2:14-6:1 (Fitzmyer, Acts, p. 364).

Nearly all commentators have noted that this is a curious way to address the question posed by the High Priest in v. 1; it also hardly seems an appropriate way for an accused man to offer defense (apologia) in a ‘trial’ setting. This has served as an argument in favor of the view that the Sanhedrin setting and framework to the speech is a secondary (and artificial) construction by the author of Acts (trad. Luke)—for more on this, see further below.

There is perhaps a tendency to gloss over this lengthy recital of Old Testament history; it can seem rather tedious, even irrelevant, in context. It may be tempting, indeed, to skip on ahead to verse 43ff, or even verse 54ff; however there are several reasons why it is important to include this section (and to read it carefully):

First, there is a rhetorical and narrative structure to the speech (see above) which is disrupted if one omits (or ignores) the historical summary; it is vital to a proper understanding of the speech as a whole.
Second, it is important to recognize the place that the Old Testament narrative had for early Christians and in their Gospel preaching; the way Paul references the Scriptures in his letters makes it clear that even Gentile converts must have been made familiar with the Old Testament and Israelite history as part of their basic instruction. Early Christians also saw themselves as fulfilling the history of Israel along with the promises God made to her, and so the Old Testament narrative was, in many ways, fundamental to Christian identity.
Third, the cumulative effect of the speech is lost if one ‘skips ahead’; in particular, the Scripture citation and exposition in vv. 43ff are climactic to the historical summary and really cannot be understood correctly outside of that context.

There are a number of ways one may outline this section; for a useful five-part outline, see Fitzmyer, Acts, p. 365. I have opted for a tripartite structure, as follows:

    • Abraham—the promise made by God to his people (vv. 2-8)
    • Joseph—the sojourn/exile of God’s people in the land of Egypt (vv. 9-16)
    • Moses—the exodus out of Egypt toward the land of promise (vv. 17-42a); this portion can be broken down further:
      (a) {the first forty years}—Moses in Egypt (vv. 17-22)
      (b) forty years—Moses visits his people in Egypt (vv. 23-29)
      (c) forty years—Moses receives revelation from God, with a promise to deliver the people from Egypt (vv. 30-34)
      —”This Moses”… who led Israel out of Egypt (vv. 35-37)
      —”This (Moses)” is the one who was with the congregation (of Israel) in the wilderness (vv. 38-39a)
      ** The Israelites refused to hear/obey (Moses) in the wilderness—turned to idolatry (the Golden Calf, vv. 39b-42a)
Abraham (vv. 2-8)

The first two sections (on Abraham and Joseph) are relatively straightforward summaries of passages from Genesis, with simplification and compression of detail. The summary of Abraham is taken from Genesis 11-12, with quotations or allusions from Psalm 29:3 and Deut 2:5, followed by references to Gen 17:8; 15:13-14 (LXX); Exod 3:12; Gen 17:10; 21:4. The key verse is v. 5, emphasizing God’s promise to Abraham’s descendents—Gen 17:8 (and 48:4); also Gen 12:7; 13:5; 15:18-20; 24:7. This theme of promise already appeared in Peter’s earlier speech (Acts 3:25), and will also be mentioned in Acts 7:17; 13:32; 26:6; the covenant promise to Abraham would play a key role in Paul’s writings (Galatians 3-4; Romans 4; 9:1-9ff). Verse 7 cites Exodus 3:12 (LXX), with one small difference: instead of “in/on this mountain” (en tœ¡ órei toútœ) we find “in this place” (en tœ¡ tópœ toútœ), which better fits the Temple context underlying the speech.

Joseph (vv. 9-16)

The section on Joseph draws on portions of Genesis 37-46, along with allusions to Psalm 105:21; 37:19; there are also references to Deut 10:22 and Exod 1:6 in verse 15, along with a conflation of Gen 23:16-20 and 33:19 in verse 16. The overall setting of Israel in Egypt naturally fits the theme of exile and the dispersion (Diaspora) of the Israelite/Jewish people—a motif which could already be seen with Abraham leaving his homeland, and sojourning to the land of promise.

Moses (vv. 17-42a)

This section (on Moses) is by far the most developed, demonstrating a clear rhetorical (and didactic) structure. Verses 17-34 adopt the (traditional) scheme of dividing Moses’ life (of 120 years) into three equal periods of 40:

    • forty years—Moses in Egypt (vv. 17-22) [drawn from Exodus 1-2]
    • forty years—Moses visits his people in Egypt (vv. 23-29) [from Exodus 2]
    • forty years—Moses receives revelation from God, with a promise to deliver the people from Egypt (vv. 30-34) [Exodus 3:1-10, direct quotations and paraphrase]

Vv. 23 and 30 begin with similar Greek expressions:

“and when/as forty years’ time was filled (up) [epl¢roúto] for him…” (v. 23)
“and forty years having been filled (up) [pl¢rœthéntœn]…” (v. 30)

It is also worth noting some key extra-biblical and/or traditional details mentioned in this section:

    • Moses’ beauty—Exod 2:2 [LXX]; Philo, Life of Moses I.9, 18; Josephus, Antiquities II.224
    • Moses’ learning—Philo, Life of Moses I.20-24; II. 1; Jos. Antiquities II.236 and eloquence—Philo, Life of Moses I.80; Jos. Antiquities II.271 (cf. also Sirach 45:3)
    • The Angel (of the Lord) in the burning bush—Exod 3:2 [LXX] (MSS D H P S 614 of Acts 7:30 read “of the Lord”)

The revelation by theophany (manifestation of God), i.e. His Presence—even if understood in Exod 3:1-10 as occurring through ‘Angelic’ mediation—is an important theme, as it closes this section on Moses’ life and leads into the forceful section in vv. 35-38ff with its emphasis on false worship and idolatry. Even so, it must be admitted (along with many commentators) that the precise point of the speech (taken through verse 34) is hard to see; it certainly does not answer the charges against Stephen, and appears on the surface to be a long (even irrelevant) digression. The tone of the speech, however, changes suddenly and dramatically with verse 35, with the repeated use of the demonstrative pronoun (hoútos, accusative toúton, “this [one]”).

“This (Moses)…” (vv. 35-38)—the speech moves from historical summary (in vv. 17-34, similar to the sections on Abraham/Joseph), to a series of statements extolling Moses’ role in the Exodus and wilderness period, drawing attention especially to the person of Moses by the repeated, staccato-like use of the the demonstrative pronoun (“this”). This not only represents forceful rhetoric, but also serves to draw a clear and unmistakable parallel between Moses and Jesus, as we shall see. Keep in mind a similar use of the demonstrative pronoun in referring to Jesus already in Acts 1:11; 2:23, 32, 36; 4:10-11; 5:31 (“this [one], this Jesus”; also “this name”, Acts 3:16; 4:17; 5:28); the Temple also has been referred to as “this place” (see Acts 6:13-14; 7:7).

    • V. 35—”this [toúton] Moses, whom they denied/refused… this (one) [toúton] God set forth (as) a leader and redeemer…”
    • V. 36—”this (one) [hoútos] led them out, doing marvels and signs…”
    • V. 37—”this [hoútos] is Moses, the (one) saying to the sons of Israel…”
    • V. 38—”this [hoútos] is the (one) coming to be in/among the called-out (people) in the desolate (land)…”

Verses 36-37 specifically emphasize Moses’ role in the Exodus—the deliverance of God’s people out of Egypt; in verses 38-39, the emphasis is on Moses’ role with the congregation (ekkl¢sía) of Israel in the wilderness. Verse 39 (beginning with the relative pronoun hós [dative hœ¡]) is transitional, stressing the disobedience of the people and leading into the section on the Golden Calf (vv. 40ff). The following details clarify the parallel drawn between Moses and Jesus:

    • the people denied/refused [¢rn¢¡sato] Moses (v. 35, see also 39ff) just as they denied Jesus (Acts 3:13, same verb)
    • “leader [árchœn] and redeemer [lytrœt¢¡s]” (v. 35) are titles similar to those applied to Jesus in Acts 3:15; 5:31 (cf. also 2:36)
    • Moses and Jesus are both “sent” by God (vb. apostéllœ) in v. 35; 3:20, 26
    • “wonders and signs” (v. 36) are parallel to the miracles of Jesus (2:22, cf. also 4:30)
    • Jesus as fulfillment of the “Prophet (to come) like Moses” from Deut 18:15 (cited v. 37, and in 3:22-23)
    • Moses was with the “called-out” people (ekkl¢sía) of Israel in the wilderness (v. 38), just as Jesus is with the “called-out” people (ekkl¢sía), i.e. the believers in Christ, the “church” —the word is first used in this latter sense in Acts 5:11, and occurs frequently from 8:1 on; it was used in the LXX in reference to the people gathering/assembling (to receive the Law, etc), especially in Deut 4:10; 9:10; 18:16.

The central theme of the theophanous revelation of God at Sinai (already emphasized in vv. 30-34) is brought out again here in verse 38—the closing phrase is especially significant, as it relates to one of the main charges against Stephen; it is useful, I think, to look at it in context with verse 39a:

“(this [Moses])… who [hós] received living lógia to give to us, to whom [hœ¡] our Fathers did not wish to become as (ones) who listen under [i.e. {are} obedient]…”

The neuter noun lógion, related to the more common lógos, (“account, word”), more properly refers to something uttered, i.e., “saying, announcement, declaration”; in a religious context especially it is often translated as “oracle”. For the idea of “living words/oracles” see Lev 18:5; Deut 32:46-47; note also a similar expression “the words/utterances of this life” in Acts 5:20.

The Golden Calf (vv. 39-42a)—the second half of verse 39 leads into the episode of the Golden Calf:

“…but they thrust (him [i.e. Moses]) away from (them) and turned in their hearts (back) to Egypt”

Verses 40-41 are taken from the account of the Golden Calf incident (Exod 32:1-6), emphasizing unlawful/inappropriate sacrifice (thysía, [ritual] slaughtering) and idolatry (worship of an image, eídœlon). Most important are the closing words of verse 41:

“…and they were happy [lit. of a good mind] in the works of their hands [en toís érgois tœ¡n cheirœ¡n autœ¡n]”

This last phrase introduces the idea of things “made with hands” (tied specifically to idolatry), which will play a vital role in the remainder of the speech.

In verse 39, it is stated that the people turned [estráph¢san] in their hearts (back to Egypt, and idolatry); now, in verse 42a, God turns [éstrepsen, same verb] and gives the people over [parédœken] for them to do (hired) service [latreúein, in a religious sense] to the “armies of heaven” (i.e. sun, moon, stars and planets). Of the many references warning against the consequences of image-worship, see for example, Hos 13:2-4; for a fundamental passage warning against worship of the celestial bodies, see Deut 4:16ff. On this idea of God giving/handing transgressors over to an even more serious form of idolatry, see Wisdom 11:15-16 and the famous passage in Romans 1:24-28; often there is the sense that the result (and punishment) of idolatry will resemble the very thing that was being worshipped (see Jer 19:10-13, etc).

The main Scripture citation (from Amos 5:25-27), along with the remainder of the speech, will be examined in next week’s study. I hope you will join me.

References above marked “Fitzmyer” are to Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 31 (Doubleday / Yale: 1998).

June 24: Acts 10:44-48

Acts 10:44-48

There are three references to the Spirit in the Cornelius episode of chapter 10, and each of these reflects an aspect of the Spirit-theme in Luke-Acts.

In verse 19, the Spirit communicates a message to Peter, related to his activity as a missionary (and apostle). This is part of the wider theme of the Spirit guiding and directing the early Christian missionaries. This aspect was introduced in the Acts narratives at 8:29, 39, and will continue throughout the remainder of the book. I will be discussing it specifically in an upcoming note.

In verse 38, the Spirit is mentioned as part of the Gospel proclamation (kerygma) portion of Peter’s speech (on which, cf. Parts 13-14 of the series “The Speeches of Acts”). The reference is to the Baptism of Jesus, as presented in the Lukan Gospel (3:22). Luke presents the coming of the Spirit on Jesus at his baptism as an anointing, expressed in terms of the citation of Isa 61:1-2 (by Jesus) in the Nazareth episode, marking the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. The wording here in v. 38 suggests that it is a Lukan adaptation of the early kerygma (as it would have been spoken by Peter). It is also possible that there is an allusion to the early Christian baptism ritual, where the presence of the Spirit was symbolized by the practice of chrism (anointing with oil).

This brings us to the references to the Spirit in vv. 44ff, which are closely connected with the baptism of converts, and raises the question of the relationship between the Spirit and baptism. That there was such a connection with the Spirit is well-established in early Christian tradition, going all the way back to the beginnings of the Gospel and the historical traditions surrounding John the Baptist and the Baptism of Jesus. The saying by the Baptist in Mark 1:8 par is unquestionably an old and authentic tradition:

“I dunked you in water, but he will dunk you in (the) holy Spirit”

It has been preserved in at least three separate lines of tradition—the Synoptic, the Johannine (Jn 1:33), and the versions of the saying here in the book of Acts. The version of the saying in Luke 3:16, like the parallel in Matt 3:11 represents an expanded form, with the declaration of the “one coming” being embedded in the middle of the saying. In the book of Acts, a version of this saying is part of the introduction to the book (1:1-5); the narration in this long introductory sentence leads into the saying, but framed as a saying by Jesus, rather than by the Baptist:

“…he gave along the message to them not to make space [i.e. depart] away from Yerushalaim, but to remain about (for) the e)paggeli/a of the Father, of which you (have) heard (from) me, (saying) that ‘Yohanan dunked in water, but you will be dunked in the holy Spirit after not many of these days’.” (vv. 4-5)

In the restatement of the Cornelius episode (by Peter) in chapter 11, this key tradition is specifically mentioned again, in connection with the coming of the Spirit upon the household of Cornelius:

“And, in my beginning to speak, the holy Spirit fell upon them, just as (it) also (did) upon us in (the) beginning; and I remembered the utterance of the Lord, how he related (to us): ‘Yohanan dunked in water, but you will be dunked in (the) holy Spirit’.” (vv. 15-16)

The close connection between the Spirit and baptism is thus given special emphasis. The coming of the Spirit in the Cornelius episode is first narrated in 10:44:

“(While the) Rock {Peter} was yet speaking these words, the holy Spirit fell upon (all) the (one)s hearing the account.”

Two points are significant with regard to the narrative context of the coming of the Spirit in this episode: (1) that the Spirit falls upon Gentiles (non-Jews), and (2) the Spirit comes prior to baptism. The first point is more important to the overall Lukan narrative, but the second point requires some comment as well.

In the earlier episode of 8:5-25, the Spirit does not come upon the (Samaritan) converts until Peter (and other apostles) arrive to lay hands upon them—that is, some time after they have been baptized (vv. 12-17). The implication is that the presence of an apostle is required for the Spirit to be conferred on believers. This very well may have been the procedure in the earliest Community, when the numbers were relatively small and limited to the confines of Jerusalem. It would have quickly become a practical impossibility once Christianity spread further abroad.

The first believers (including the core group of apostles) received the Spirit at the Pentecost event of 2:1-4ff, and it would be natural that believers subsequently would receive the Spirit through these apostles as intermediaries. Very soon, however, the coming of the Spirit had to be realized in a different way within the early congregations, and it was proper that the focus would be upon the baptism rite as the moment when this occurred.

The coming of the Spirit prior to baptism is most unusual, in the context of early Christianity. The most reasonable explanation, in the case of the Cornelius episode, is that the atypical sequence served to demonstrate (to the Jewish believers) that non-Jews (Gentiles) were deserving of baptism and inclusion into the Community. Verse 45 illustrates this clearly enough:

“And they stood out (of themselves) [i.e. were amazed], the (one)s (having) trusted out of (those having been) cut around [i.e. circumcised], as many as came with (the) Rock {Peter}, (in) that [i.e. because] the gift of the holy Spirit had been poured out even upon (those of) the nations.”

This issue becomes the focus of chapter 11, and reaches its culmination in the Jerusalem Council of chapter 15 (an episode that sits at the very heart of the book of Acts). The presence of the Spirit was manifested through ‘speaking in tongues’ (v. 46), much as in 2:4ff and (presumably) in 8:17-18. Peter addresses the possible concern of Jewish believers in v. 47:

“It is (surely) not possible (for) any(one) to cut off the water (so that) these (people) should not be dunked, (these) who received the holy Spirit (just) as we also (did)?”

The decisive point for Peter, and for the Jewish Christians who were convinced by his arguments, was that the Spirit came upon these Gentile converts. It was the presence of the Spirit which demonstrated unquestionably that the conversions were genuine, at that these non-Jewish believers had every right to be counted among the faithful and included within the early Christian Community—even before they had been baptized. Baptism and the coming of the Spirit were closely connected, but they remained separate events and distinct religious phenomena within early Christianity, even as they are (and should be so) for believers today.


June 23: Acts 8:6-7ff (Lk 11:20)

Acts 8:6-7ff (Luke 11:20)

The first episode in the second division of the book of Acts involves the ministry of Philip in Samaria (8:5-25). As the summary narration in vv. 5-7 indicates, he both (a) preached the Gospel (“proclaimed the Anointed [One]”), and (b) performed wondrous “signs” (shmei=a) that included healing miracles. The miracles are performed in support of the Gospel preaching, as an authentication of its truth. All of this corresponds precisely with the prayer of believers in 4:29-30 (and its answer by God, v. 31), which makes it absolutely certain that the author of the narrative (trad. Luke) understood Philip’s miracles as the product of the Spirit’s presence and work.

This ministry of Philip results in the conversion of a number of Samaritans, who were then baptized (vv. 12-13). However, these converts did not themselves receive the Spirit until Peter and other apostles (that is, members of the Twelve) arrived and laid hands on them (vv. 14-17). The relationship of the Spirit to the rite of baptism (and laying on of hands) will be discussed in the next note. The point I wish to highlight here is the supernatural (miraculous) character of the Spirit’s manifestation. The effect of the coming of the Spirit on new believers is to be counted among the “signs and wonders” performed by the early Christians through the power of the Spirit.

The effect, in this case, was such that a certain Simon was fascinated by it (v. 13). Almost certainly, the phenomenon of ‘speaking in tongues’ was involved (cp. 2:4ff; 10:45). Simon recognized that the power of the Spirit was conveyed through the action of the apostles, and, based on his misguided understanding of the matter, sought to buy this power (vv. 18-19). The exchange with Peter that follows (vv. 20-24) is similar to his earlier encounter with Ananias/Sapphira (5:3-10, cf. the discussion in the previous note). Peter’s condemnation of Simon is similarly harsh: “May your silver be with you unto (your) ruin!” In colloquial English, we would probably say something like “To hell with you and your money!” The principle that Peter states remains pertinent for all believers as a warning:

“…you thought to acquire the gift of God through xrh=ma

The term xrh=ma fundamental refers to “something that can be used” by another person, and which thus can tangibly be sold or acquired through a business or commercial exchange. The power of the Spirit is not like this—it is the gift of God, bestowed upon believers by God Himself. Simon seems to acknowledge his error and responds with repentance (v. 24), quite contrary to the later Christian portrait of him (cf. “Did You Know…?” below).

This power of the Spirit possessed by believers is an extension of the miracle-working power exhibited by Jesus’ disciples went he sent them out on missions during the time of his ministry in Galilee (Mk 3:14-15; 6:7-13a par; Lk 10:1-12). The authority to preach and work (healing) miracles was given to them by Jesus himself, so that they functioned as his representatives (the fundamental meaning of the term apostle, “[one] sent forth”). The role of the Spirit is not mentioned in this regard (in the Gospel tradition), but the author of Luke-Acts certainly would have understood it as obvious and implicit in the tradition. Jesus’ own preaching and miracle-working power was a product of his anointing by the Spirit (at the Baptism)—Lk 3:22; 4:1ff, 14, 18ff. The citation of Isa 61:1-2 follows the LXX, with its mention of the blind recovering their sight, giving to the prophecy a healing miracle aspect that is not present in the original Hebrew. This aspect is given even more emphasis, in connection with ministry of Jesus, in 7:21-22 par.

However, the only direct reference to the presence of the Spirit in the miracles of Jesus is the saying in Lk 11:20 par (a “Q” tradition):

“but if, with (the) finger of God, I cast out the daimons, then (surely) the kingdom of God has (already) arrived upon you.”

The version in Matthew 12:28 is identical, except that it has the expression “Spirit [pneu=ma] of God” instead of “finger [da/ktulo$] of God”. It is unquestionably the same saying, and in this case a facile harmonization, to the effect that Jesus said both “Spirit” and “finger” at the same time, can be ruled out. The best explanation is that Luke has the more original version of the saying, and that the Matthean version is an interpretive adaptation, essentially explaining what the expression “finger of God” means in context—i.e., that it refers to the Spirit of God. Certainly the Lukan author would completely agree with this explanation.

Indeed, the connection with the Spirit is rooted in the wider Synoptic tradition—namely, the Beelzebub episode (Mk 3:22-27 par) where the “Q” tradition is attached (in Matthew and Luke). Connected with this episode is the Synoptic saying regarding the insult (blasfhmi/a) against the Holy Spirit (Mk 3:28-29 par). The overall thrust of the episode is the fact that certain people—identified as religious leaders opposed to Jesus—were claiming that his healing (exorcism) miracles were the result of demonic influence over him. The Markan narrative explicitly connects the Spirit-saying in vv. 28-29 with such false and hostile claims against Jesus (v. 30)—i.e., that his miracle-working power came from “Beelzebul” rather than God’s holy Spirit.

Thus, implicit in the Synoptic tradition is the claim that Jesus’ miracles were due to the presence of Spirit working in him. This same power was given by Jesus to his disciples, and now, more fully, to the early believers in Jerusalem. As in Jesus’ own ministry, the role of the Spirit was present both in the preaching and miracles performed by believers; the miracles, indeed, has as their primary purpose confirmation of the truth of the Gospel.

Like the figure of Judas Iscariot, Simon Magus came to be viewed in a completely negative light in early Christianity—wicked and nefarious, an arch-heretic and ‘founder’ of Gnosticism (Justin First Apology §§26, 56; Irenaeus Against Heresies I.23; Tertullian On the Soul §34; Against All Heresies §1; Eusebius Church History II.13; Epiphanius Panarion 21.1-4, etc). In the Pseudo-Clementine literature, Simon becomes the chief adversary of Peter during his missionary journeys. This entire line of tradition is highly dubious, built upon little more than the details of the Acts narrative. While Simon’s behavior and attitude is clearly immature and misguided, there is no real indication in the text that his conversion and baptism were a sham or otherwise false (as the later tradition would essentially require).

June 22: Acts 5:3ff; 7:51

Acts 5:3ff; 7:51

In the previous note, we saw how the presence of the Spirit was tied to the believers’ experience of opposition to the Gospel. The initial experience of opposition and persecution (by the Jerusalem authorities) prompted their prayer in 4:23-31, which was answered by God, by giving to the believers a fresh empowerment with the Spirit (v. 31). The conflict episodes that follow in chapters 5-7 continue the development of this theme, adding to it the idea that opposition to the Gospel is essentially the same as opposing God Himself. This is expressed powerfully by Gamaliel in 5:39 where the possibility is raised that, by opposing the Christians, the authorities may end up being “fighters (against) God” (qeoma/xoi).

Not surprisingly, in light of the Lukan Spirit-theme, this is also expressed in terms of opposing the Spirit of God. We find this in two of the conflict episodes, and, while the nature of the conflict may differ in each, the basic message regarding opposition to the Spirit is fundamentally the same.

In the Ananias/Sapphira episode (5:1-11), the conflict is internal, related to the unity of the Jerusalem believers, as expressed through the communalistic socio-economic structure adopted by the Community. The importance of this mode of existence, as a practical expression of unity, is clear from the summary narration in 2:42-47 (vv. 44-45) and 4:32-37. The latter passage is followed immediately by the Ananias/Sapphira episode. This Christian couple was apparently reluctant to give over all the proceeds from the sale of their property to the Community.

The way this is described in vv. 1-2, the implication is that Ananias and Sapphira presented the money to the Community as representing the full amount, while they actually kept back part of it for their own use. The sin, therefore, was not so much the failure to give over all the proceeds, but the deceitful way in which they handled the matter. This is certainly the thrust of Peter’s announcement of judgment against them (vv. 3-4, 9). It is not stated how Peter became aware of their deception, but the wording in the narrative allows for the possibility that it was revealed to him by the Spirit. What is most significant, from the standpoint of our study, is how their deception is framed as a crime against the Spirit:

To Ananias:
“Through what [i.e. how] did the Satan fill your heart (for) you to act falsely (toward) the holy Spirit…?” (v. 3)
To Sapphira:
“How (is it) that the voice came together in (the two of) you to test the Spirit of (the) Lord?” (v. 9)

Their sinful (deceitful) action is characterized by the verb yeu/domai (“act/speak falsely”) and peira/zw (“test, put to the test”), respectively.

The action by Ananias and Sapphira was opposed to the principle of unity among believers. This principle, in its own way, is fundamental to the preaching of the Gospel; on the theme of unity in relation to the Spirit, cf. the recent “Notes on Prayer” studies on 1:14 and 24.

In the conflict-episode of chaps. 6-7, the focus is on Jewish opposition to the Gospel. This opposition had been building through the episodes of chaps. 4-5, until it reached it climax with the interrogation and death of Stephen. I have discussed the speech of Stephen (and its framing narrative) at length in earlier articles (cf. Parts 912 of “The Speeches of Acts”). Here I will focus specifically on the reference to the Spirit in 7:51. This comes at the conclusion to the speech, where Stephen’s rhetoric becomes most forceful, directed against those interrogating him:

“(You) stiffnecked (one)s and (with) no cutting around [i.e. uncircumcised] in (your) heart and ears! You always fall (down) against the holy Spirit—(just) as your fathers (did), (so) also you!”

He can say that the Jerusalem authorities “always” (a)ei/) oppose the Spirit because they are following the historical pattern of those Israelites who opposed Moses during the time of the Exodus. Such persons have always opposed the word of God and the prophetic Spirit (epitomized in the inspired person of Moses). Now they are standing in opposition to the inspired (prophetic) message of the Gospel, being proclaimed by ministers such as Stephen. The Moses/Jesus parallel is absolutely clear in Stephen’s speech, and follows the message by Peter in 3:22-23 (cp. 7:37), where Jesus is identified as the ‘Prophet like Moses’ promised in Deut 18:15-19. In that passage, a terrible judgment will come upon those who refuse to listen to the words of this Prophet; and, since believers like Stephen are speaking in Jesus’ name, as his representatives, they have the same prophetic authority.

The inspired character of Stephen is specified in the introductory narrative. The seven men chosen to serve as adjunct leaders (to the Twelve) in the Community were expected to be people “full of (the) Spirit and wisdom” (6:3). Stephen clearly met this requirement, as it is said of him that he was “a man full of trust and the holy Spirit” (v. 5). Moreover, he exhibited in his ministry of preaching that he was “full of (the) favor and power (of God)”, manifested specifically through the working of miracles; the “power” (du/nami$) here certainly refers to the power of the Spirit (cf. 4:30f; also 1:4 [Lk 24:49], 8; 3:12; 4:7; 8:19; 10:38, etc). If there were any doubt about the inspired (prophetic) character of Stephen’s speech, this is indicated vividly by the description in 6:15.

The verb a)ntipi/ptw (lit. “fall against”) indicates a more agressive—even violent—form of opposition. In English, we would probably say “fall upon”, as in a mob of attackers who falls upon a person—which, indeed, is what happens to Stephen (7:57-58). Even though his speech is framed as part of a judicial proceeding, an interrogation before the Jewish Council (Sanhedrin), the action taken against seems more like the behavior of a lynch mob. In any case, the death of Stephen sets the stage for a period of persecution of believers in Judea (8:1b-3), that results in many of them being scattered into the surrounding regions. It is there that the proclamation of the Gospel ‘into all the nations’ will truly begin, and the Spirit will be present with the missionaries, guiding them and empowering them along the way. We will see how the author begins to develop that aspect of the Spirit-theme, in the next daily note.


June 21: Acts 4:31 (Lk 11:13)

Acts 4:31 (Luke 11:13)

The prayer-speech of the Jerusalem believers in Acts 4:23-31 follows the conflict-episode of 4:1-22, and comes in response to that episode. It is the first recorded instance of opposition to the Gospel message (by the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem). Both the content of the speech and the framing of it (vv. 24a, 31) make clear that it truly is a prayer to God:

“And, (hav)ing made their request (to God)…” (v. 31)

The verb de/omai is largely synonymous with the common verb for prayer, proseu/xomai (“speak out toward [God]”)—compare 10:2 and 30. In the introduction to the prayer-speech (v. 24a) it is said that the believers “lifted (their) voice toward God”. The specific request they make relates to their mission of proclaiming the Gospel; the petition is two-fold:

    • That they would be enabled to proclaim the Gospel (lit. the account [lo/go$] of God, “your account”) with all outspokenness (parrhsi/a, i.e. boldness) [v. 29]
    • That God would continue to perform miracles through them (like the healing of the crippled man in chap. 3) [v. 30]; this miracle-working power is intended to support the preaching of the Gospel:
      “…to speak your account with all outspokenness, in the stretching out of your hand to (perform) healing and signs and wonders…”

It is recognized that the power to work miracles comes “through the name” of Jesus—that is, believers acting in Jesus’ name, with his power and authority, as his representatives. This is an extension of the authority given to the disciples by Jesus during the period of his earthly ministry (Luke 9:1-6 par; 10:1-12). Only now, with the departure of Jesus to heaven, this authority comes through the direct presence of the Spirit, given to the believers by Jesus himself. And, in fact, God answers the prayer, by gifting the believers with a fresh empowerment by the Spirit:

“And, (hav)ing made their request (to God), the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they all were filled by the holy Spirit, and they spoke the account (of God) with outspokenness [parrhsi/a].” (v. 31)

This essentially repeats the manifestation of the Spirit in the earlier Pentecost scene (2:1-4ff), when, it may also be assumed, believers had been gathered together and united in prayer (1:14, 24). The coming of the Spirit, and the manifestation of its presence, is thus the answer to believers’ prayer. In this regard it is worth considering Jesus’ teaching on prayer in the Gospel (Lk 11:1-13), which includes the Lukan version of the Lord’s prayer. This teaching is distinctive in that it climaxes with a saying by Jesus that indicates that the true goal (and purpose) of the disciples’ prayer is the sending of the Spirit by God:

“So if you, beginning under [i.e. while you are] evil, have known (enough) to give good gifts to your offspring, how much more will the Father out of heaven give (the) holy Spirit to the (one)s asking him!” (11:13)

In the Matthean version of this “Q” tradition, the saying makes no mention of the Spirit:

“…how much more will your Father, the (One) in the heavens, give good (thing)s to the (one)s asking him!” (7:11)

This raises the strong possibility that the reference to the Spirit is a Lukan adaptation of the saying, interpreting (and explaining) the “good things” that God will give as referring primarily to the Spirit. This is consonant with the Spirit-theme of Luke-Acts, and, in my view, there is little doubt that the author is here anticipating the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise in the early chapters of Acts.

In this regard, mention should be made of the interesting variant reading in the Lukan version of the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer (11:2). In a handful of manuscripts and textual witnesses, in place of the request for the coming of the Kingdom (“may your Kingdom come”, we have a request for the coming of the Spirit; in minuscule MS 700 this reads:

“May your holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us”
e)lqe/tw to\ pneu=ma sou to\ a%gion e)f’ h(ma=$ kai\ kaqarisa/tw h(ma=$

While this reading almost certainly is secondary (and not original), it is fully in accord with the Lukan understanding of the true nature of God’s Kingdom. The key declaration by Jesus in Acts 1:8 serves as the primary theme for the entire book, and it defines the Kingdom according to the two-fold aspect of: (a) the presence of the Spirit, and (b) the proclamation of the Gospel (into all the nations). The answer to the believers’ prayer in 4:31 clearly encapsulates both of these aspects.

Notes on Prayer: Acts 9:11-12; 10:2-4

Acts 9:11-12; 10:2-4

Following the death of Stephen (cf. the previous study), and the onset of persecution against believers in Judea (8:1-3), a new division in the book of Acts begins at 8:4:

“So the(y), (hav)ing been scatted throughout, went throughout giving the good message of the account (of God)…”

The persecution in Judea forced many believers out into the surrounding regions, thus inaugurating the extension of early Christian mission beyond the confines of Jerusalem (and Judea). The division that begins with 8:4 and extends through the Council at Jerusalem (chap. 15), is based on two main lines of tradition—one focusing on the missionary work of Peter, and the other the first missionary journeys of Paul.

Peter’s missionary work dominates chapters 9-12, and represents the first narrative episodes in Acts related to the wider Christian mission. However, there is an important aspect to the way that the overall narrative is framed. The initial narration of the mission-work of Paul (9:19b-31) and Peter (9:32-43) is framed by two major conversion episodes: that of Paul (Saul) himself (9:1-19a) and Cornelius (chap. 10). These conversion accounts share certain features in common, and are instructive for how the author of Acts understands the nature of the early Christian mission.

We often think of conversion in terms of the Prodigal Son example: i.e., a person who repents from a sinful/wicked lifestyle and experiences a complete transformation (a ‘new birth’) as a Christian. However, while this aspect is certainly part of the Gospel message in Acts (2:38ff, etc), it does not feature prominently in the narrative. There really are no conversion-episodes that follow the Prodigal pattern. Instead, the focus is on pious and devout persons (both Jews and Gentiles) whose acceptance of the Gospel essentially represents a natural development of their righteous character. Paul and Cornelius, each in their own way, embody the devout Jew and Gentile who convert to the Christian faith.

Paul’s character as a devout Jew is well-established in early Christian tradition, and is confirmed by his own letters (Gal 2:14; Phil 3:5-6; cf. Acts 22:3). The evils he committed as a persecutor of believers are of a different sort, the product of misguided religious zeal. In this regard, Paul (Saul) is cut from the same cloth as the Jewish opponents of the Gospel in the early chapters of Acts; indeed, according to the narrative detail in 8:1a, he is among those for whom Stephen prays (7:60). On Paul’s role in persecuting believers, the authenticity of this historical tradition is established on objective grounds, being generally confirmed by Paul’s own letters (Gal 2:13; Phil 3:6).

After his revelatory experience (9:3-8), we read that Paul (“did not eat and did not drink”, v. 9). While this may be viewed as an effect of the revelation, parallel to his loss of sight, it is probable that such fasting may also reflect Paul’s genuine repentance for his attacks against Christians. His loss of physical sight symbolizes his blindness in not recognizing the truth of the Gospel (cp. John 9:39ff). Once he regains his sight, his righteousness is also restored; it is no longer simply the righteousness of the devout Jew, but a piety that has been transformed in the light of Christ.

During Paul’s time of fasting and repentance, his situation is communicated by vision to another believer (Ananias) in Damascus (vv. 10ff). Ananias is commanded to go to Paul and to minister to him, effecting his conversion (and restoration). Embedded in the message to Ananias is the detail that, at the very moment, Paul was in prayer (“for, see, he is speaking out toward [God] [proseu/xetai]”). In his prayer, Paul himself sees a corresponding vision of Ananias coming to minister to him (v. 12). This is another interesting example of the Lukan theme of prayer as a sign of the unity of believers.

While Paul was the prototype of the devout Jew (though with misguided religious zeal), Cornelius represents the devout Gentile. This is expressed by the narrative description of him in 10:2-3, which echoes, in certain respects, the description of the devout Israelites and Jews (Zechariah/Elizabeth, Joseph/Mary, Simeon/Anna) in the Lukan Infancy narratives. Cornelius is characterized as eu)sebh/$, which properly means something like “(one who shows) good reverence (to God)”; it is used only here (also v. 7) and in 2 Pet 2:9, though related words in the eu)seb– wordgroup are found elsewhere in the New Testament. Cornelius is also identified as “(one) fearing God” (fobou/meno$ to\n qeo/n), which is a more specific religious characteristic, though it is generally comparable in meaning to eu)sebh/$; indeed, a more common expression is sebo/meno$ to\n qeo/n (“[one] showing reverence [to] God”), cf. Acts 13:50; 16:14; 17:4, 17; 18:7. The Greek expression fobou/meno$ to\n qeo/n is derived from the LXX (cf. 115:11; 118:4; 135:20), and occurs again in Acts at 10:22, 35; 13:16, 26. It came to be applied specifically to non-Jews who revered the God of Israel or who were sympathetic to Jerusalem (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 14.110), thus recognized (and labeled) as “God-fearers”. Cf. Fitzmyer, pp. 449-50.

The devout and upright character of Cornelius is reflected by the positive moral and religious influence he exerted over his household, and specifically by the charitable acts (“[act]s of mercy”) he performed, and by his prayers to God (10:2). It is said that he always (dia\ panto/$, “through all [time]s, through all [thing]s”) prayed to God; in v. 2 the verb de/omai is used, meaning “make a request” (to God), but in v. 30 it is proseu/xomai (“speak out toward [God]”). This devout behavior (and character) of Cornelius anticipates his acceptance of the Gospel and conversion to Christianity. Indeed, in v. 4, his prayer is answered in a vision, affirming God’s acceptance of his prayers (as an offering to Him), along with providing instructions in preparation of Peter’s ministry to his house (vv. 5ff). The parallels with the earlier Paul episode are worth noting:

    • Both are praying when they receive their vision (implying that it is an answer to prayer)
    • The vision involves a believer (Ananias/Peter) who will come and minister to them
    • This believer, at the same time, receives a vision regarding the person to whom they are going to minister
    • The minister delivers a message which leads to the conversion of the individual (Paul/Cornelius)

Cornelius, in particular, become the examplar for the devout Gentile who will accept the Gospel message. Peter’s declaration in 10:35 essentially makes this point:

“…but in every nation the (one) fearing Him and (who is) working justice/righteousness, is received [i.e. accepted] by Him”

The Gentiles who accept the Gospel, are, on the whole, upright and devout, in a manner that is comparable to those upright Israelites and Jews who first responded to the Gospel. Before turning to the Gentiles, Paul’s mission focused on the synagogues—places where one would be likely to find devout ‘God-fearers’ responsive to the Gospel message. Even in the cities with smaller Jewish populations (as in Philippi), Paul and his fellow-missionaries continued to seek out pockets of devout Jews—and they, like Paul and Cornelius would regularly be engaged in prayer (cf. 16:13ff).

In conclusion, I would point out several ways that the mention of Cornelius’ prayers in 10:2-3ff develop certain key Lukan themes:

    • Continuity between the Old and New Covenants—As noted above, Cornelius was a “God-fearer” who worshiped the true God and who was sympathetic to Judaism. He thus establishes a point of continuity between the Old Covenant (i.e., the religious devotion of Israelites and Jews), and the New (i.e., believers, including both Jews and Gentiles). What follows in chapter 11, and which leads into the Jerusalem Council of chapter 15, represents a significant and pointed development of this theme. The Gospel message is no innovation, but represents the true fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel.
    • Prayer in place of sacrifice—Cornelius’ prayers are described in sacrificial terms, as something that rises up to God (like the smoke of the burnt offerings). The idea of his prayers as a memorial also reflects aspects of the sacrificial offerings (cf. Lev 2:2, 9, 16; 5:12; 6:15; Fitzmyer, p. 451). The time of the vision is also noteworthy, in that it corresponds with the time of the evening (afternoon) daily offering (cp. 3:1; Lk 1:10). Throughout Luke-Acts the role of the Temple has changed from a place of sacrificial offerings to being a “house of prayer (for all nations)” (Lk 19:46 par, citing Isa 56:7). For believers, the Temple is a locale for preaching, teaching, and prayer, rather than observance of the sacrificial ritual.
    • The establishment of the Kingdom of God is realized primarily through the proclamation of the Gospel, a mission that extends from Jerusalem all the way to the “ends of the earth”. This is established at the beginning of Acts through the declaration of Jesus (1:8), and then is developed throughout the narratives of the book. Cornelius is the first clear example of the Gospel message truly going out to the “nations” (in the sense of non-Jews), though the idea is very much anticipated in the Pentecost narrative of chapter 2, as well as Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian official (8:26-40). The other aspect of the Kingdom-theme—the coming of the Holy Spirit—also features in the Cornelius episode (10:44-45ff; 11:15ff).

References marked “Fitzmyer” above are to Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 31 (Doubleday/Yale: 1998).