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Chung-Kim, Esther and Todd R. Hains, editors. Acts. Reformation Commentary on Scripture: New Testament 6. Downers Grover, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2014.  430 pp. Hc; $40.00.  Link

This is the latest installment in the Reformation Commentary Series (RCS). Following in the footsteps of the popular Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture from InterVarsity, this commentary collects key sections from Reformation commentators and presents them in an accessible format for the modern reader. Esther Chung-Kim is a professor of Religious Studies at Claremont McKenna College specializing in the History of World Christianity and Todd Hains is a PhD candidate in historical theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity.

Timothy George’s General Introduction to the RCS is a good 23 page refresher on what constitutes the literature of the Reformation in terms of chronology and confession. There is far more to read from this period than just Luther and Calvin. This commentary therefore includes Erasmus as a biblical humanist as well as obvious examples from (Wittenberg, Luther; Strasbourg, Bucer; Zurich, Zwingli; Geneva, Calvin). There are also examples from the British reformation (including John Donne and William Perkins) and a few from the Anabaptist tradition.

RefCommentaryThe editors draw together a few key themes in their introduction to the commentary on Acts. First, the reformation commentators thought of themselves as “actors on the same stage” as the apostles in Acts. Acts was not history to a writer like John Donne, it is the story of what continues to happen in the present experience of the Church. In fact, Acts provided Reformation commentators an opportunity to discuss the “office of the Word,” or how one goes about preaching the Gospel. An additional interest of the Reformation commentators is baptism. This is not surprising given the variety of views sacrament during this period of history as well as the inconsistency of Acts in portraying the rite. In the body of this commentary, diverse opinions are included, so that from the text of Acts 2:42 Michael Sattler (a Swiss radical, 1490-1527) can argue circumcision is not a type of baptism, Peter Walpot (a Moravian radical, d. 1578) can dismiss infant baptism, and the Augsburg Confession (1530) argues in favor of efficacious infant baptism (p. 32-33). Luther can turn Paul’s baptism in Acts 9 into a defense of infant baptism, while Leonhard Schiemer (an Austrian martyr, d. 1528) uses the same text to argue for believer’s baptism (146-7).

Another interest of the Reformation commentaries on Acts is treatment of the poor. The church had to deal with the poor in a world that was rapidly changing. While Calvin and the Geneva reformers sought to create a kind of social welfare system to assist the poor, immigrants and others displaced by political turmoil, the radical reformers were abolishing personal property and living lives of voluntary poverty. Obviously the Munster radicals did not write commentaries on Acts, but the model of Acts 2:42-47 was taken seriously. Peter Walpot is included as a voice declaring personal property to be the source of all kinds of sin, while Calvin and others argue for the proper use of property from the same texts.

One of the most important themes of Acts which resonated with the Reformation commentators is suffering for the faith. As Chung-Kim and Hains state, the Reformation “caused a revolution in the Christian theology of suffering” (liv). Menno Simons, for example, describes Paul’s suffering at Lystra as an example of the “misery, tribulation, persecution, bonds, fear and death” that attests the Spirit of Liberty (198).

The body of the commentary begins with the ESV text of Acts followed by a brief overview of the pericope. The editors then collect brief extracts from Reformation commentaries in two columns, providing a short summarizing heading in bold type. The name of the writer appears first in small caps, followed by the extract. Latin is given in brackets when necessary. The entry concludes with the name of the work and a footnote provides the reader necessary bibliographic information on the entry. There are no sidebars or explanations of the details of the text of Acts (with the exception of a chart on the Herodian dynasty in Acts 12, p. 162). Since the purpose of the commentary is to report the interpretations of the Reformers, this is to be expected.

The book concludes with several appendices, including a map of Europe during the Reformation and a timeline for events in the Reformation countries for the years 1337-1691. There is a 23 page collection of biographical sketches of the Reformers collected in the commentary as well as short descriptions of key documents and confessions of the period. A bibliography of primary sources is included along with several indices. The bibliography lists online resources where available.

Conclusion. Like the Ancient Christian Commentary series, this book is not a commentary on the text Bible as much as a collection of observations Acts drawn from a narrow range of history. While some of these issues seem obtuse to the modern reader, many questions the Reformation raised when they read Acts are similar in nature to what Christians ask 500 years later. The editors of the volume are to be commended for culling through a massive literature in order to find salient points of contact over this long period of church history.

One contribution of the series is to provide English translations for some Reformers who have yet to be translated. By arranging these readings in a semi-topical fashion, the editors make it quite easy for the non-expert to read what might be an overwhelming and bewildering commentary. A good introduction to reading Reformation writers for those interested is Reading Scripture with the Reformers by the Reformed Commentary series editor Timothy George.

 

NB: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

James Dunn titled his chapter on Peter in his book on the apostolic period “The Voiceless Peter” (Beginning at Jerusalem, chapter, 35).  His point is that the book of Acts has little to say about Peter after chapter 12 and that there is very little (if any) historically reliable data which allows us to know much at all about Peter.  Dunn does not accept 1 Peter as coming from a historical Peter, although he discusses the locations from 1 Peter 1:1 as possible locations for Peter to have ministered and he uses the reference to Babylon in 5:13 as a int that Peter was in fact in Rome in the early 60’s.

Saint Peter and the KeysAny “quest” for the historical Peter will be complicated by the fact that so much tradition surrounds Peter.  It is difficult know when a later generation was recalling a real event or creating an event in order to give Peter more weight as the leader of the Church.  One example is the elevation of Peter in Matthew 16:13-20.  “Upon this rock I will build my church” seems to be a clear statement that Peter is the foundation for the church.  For many scholars, this text suspicious since it is only found in Matthew and sounds a bit too much like Matthew was reflecting the current state of the church at the time he was writing rather than something that Jesus actually said.  For example, Dunn thinks that Matthew did in fact give Peter a great of significance, but this may be rooted in the memory of Peter functioning as a foundational figure in the church.

It is however clear that Peter was a follower of Jesus from the beginning.  Jesus chose him as a leader of the twelve because he understood who Jesus was most fully.  Peter is at the head of every list of the disciples and there is no question that the gospels see him as the chief of the apostles.  The only exception to this might be John, which features the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” probably John himself.

The center of the three synoptic gospels is the confession of Peter, his statement that Jesus is in fact God’s messiah, God’s son.  In each gospel this is the climax of the first half of the book, as Jesus teaches the crowds who he is, after the confession of Peter there is far more training of the disciples personally, and several predictions that Jesus will suffer at the hands of the elders and priests and be crucified.  After Jesus announces that he will suffer and die, Peter rebukes Jesus and tells him that he will not die – often this is described as a failure on Peter’s part.

But Peter is not “succumbing to the flesh” (as John MacArthur says in Twelve Ordinary Men, 37), but he is making a thoughtful statement about who Jesus is (and he gets it correct), but misunderstands what Jesus will do in Jerusalem. MacArthur is better later in the text (page 45) when he contrasts Peter’s  confession with his rebuke, the harshest endured by any person in the gospels (Get thee behind me, Satan!)  But he is not rejected as the leader of the disciples, nor does the rebuke seem to change the relationship of Peter and Jesus.  Peter’s lack of understanding is an opportunity for Satan to tempt Jesus.

The confession and rebuke therefore stand out as an example of Peter’s boldness and initiative – he is the one who must stand up for the rest and speak on their behalf because that is the place to which God has called him.

Obviously his denial is a spectacular failure, but at least he is in the position to make that kind of failure.

The books of Luke – Acts end with the phrase, “boldly and without hindrance. Since Paul is in prison when the book ends, it is quite remarkable that Luke could describe Paul’s activity not being hindered. But the statement is not about Paul but the rather the Gospel. How is it that Paul’s preaching can be described in this way?

First, Paul’s preaching in Acts and throughout all his letters is based on Jesus as Messiah and his work on the cross. That the person and work of Jesus is the basis of the gospel is clear from the preaching of the apostles in Acts. Beginning with the preaching of the Apostles in Acts 2:22-24, the central theme is Jesus Christ, that he was crucified and rose from the dead. On Acts 13:26-31 Paul emphasizes the death and resurrection of Jesus. Notice that in both Peter and Paul’s sermon the fact that Jesus was crucified is clear, but also that God raised him from the dead and exalted him to his right hand, proving that he was in fact God’s son, the messiah. In fact, in 16:31, Paul says that the only want to be saved is to “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

It is tempting to downplay the centrality of Jesus to our faith since he is still as controversial today as in the first century. People seem to like the idea of spirituality and religion, but they are not attracted to Jesus – the scandal of the cross is very real in contemporary culture. “Spiritual but not religious” is a movement which rejects religions, advocating love and respect without being dogmatic on who Jesus is or whether there is a God or not. It is also possible to place such a strong emphasis on building relationships and social activities that there is no confrontation with Jesus. Our churches need relationships and social activities, but we need to confront people with the truth of the Gospel, the Gospel demands a response!

Paul’s preaching centered on Jesus and what he did on the cross, and what this atonement for sin means for people in the present age. Paul brought his sermons to a decision. As the jailer in Acts 16:31 asks, “what must you do to be saved?”

Second, Paul taught freely and with boldness because his gospel was based on Scripture. If we go back in Acts and read Paul’s sermons, we find that they are based on the fulfillment of scripture. The same is true for the letters, Paul constantly quotes scripture and alludes to the Hebrew Bible as the revealed word of God.

Using Paul’s sermon in Acts 13 as an example, he blends several verses from the Hebrew Bible in order to show that Jesus is the messiah. In fact, ever apostolic sermon in Acts is laced with references to the Hebrew Bible, whether that is Peter in Acts 2 and 3 or Stephen in Acts 7. The only exception are the two sermons of Paul in pagan contexts, but even there he alludes to the story of the Bible without directly quoting it. This implies that Paul knew his Bible well and was able to apply that scripture to new events. In this case, to show that Jesus is the messiah and that his death on the cross means salvation for both Jews and Gentiles.

Here is another potential problem for modern Christians. We lack confidence in the Bible for several reasons:

  • Biblical Ignorance – Biblical illiteracy is a problem in the church, it is an epidemic in the world. Most church kids are taught the Old Testament by vegetables, most twenty-somethings only know the few Bible stories that were on the Simpsons. This is a problem which must be overcome, but not by downplaying the text of the Bible.
  • Biblical Embarrassment – some of the stories from the Hebrew Bible are difficult to read in a modern context. When I teach freshmen Bible survey classes, frequently I hear from students, “I had no idea that was in the Bible!) There are stories in the Hebrew Bible that are attacked by secularists as violent, misogynist, or portraying God as a sociopath.
  • Biblical Replacement – it is sometimes easy to get people to a spiritual idea without using the Bible. (Using movie clips at camp, teaching the gospel through a secular song or literature, the Gospel according to Lord of the Rings, for example). This is a legitimate way to generate interest, but if the Bible is not the foundation of the sermon, it does not matter how crafty your illustration is.

As shocking as it seems, there are churches in America that do not peach from the Bible. Their people do not bring Bibles to church because they do not own Bibles and there is little need for them in the sermon.

Third, Paul taught freely and with boldness because his preaching of the gospel was the fulfillment of God’s plan. We are looking at the last line of the book of Acts and seeing how Luke wanted to end the story. But the idea that God is fulfilling the great story of redemption in the work of Jesus is a major theme of his two books.

Luke 1:1 states that his purpose for writing was so that Theophilus might have an accurate record of the “things which have been fulfilled among us.” Luke 24:44-49 concludes the book of Luke with the same idea, Jesus himself states that everything that happened fulfilled scripture. Acts is the story of how that fulfillment works it’s way from Jerusalem to the rest of the world, and ultimately to Rome itself.

If I absolutely knew how a sporting event was going to come out, I would be able to wager with confidence. I might even have a boldness to “bet it all” on the outcome of the game. What Luke is telling us in the last few verses of Acts is that we can have confidence in the outcome because God has already planned the key events of salvation history and he has already won the victory in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Standing on the foundation of the scripture, we can have confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ and share our faith “with boldness” and “without hindrance.”

Why is it, then, that we pretend we are hindered in our presentation of the Gospel?

The last words of the book of Acts in the Greek are “boldly and without hindrance.” This is a good theme to leave the book of Acts, that Paul preached the gospel boldly and without hindrance.

To speak “boldly” (παρρησία) is to have freedom to speak, perhaps even fearless speech. “Boldness” is a characteristic of apostolic preaching in the first part of Acts. The Sanhedrin saw that Peter and John spoke boldly (4:13), and the Jerusalem church prayed that God would continue tot give them boldness (4:29); when they were filled with the Holy Spirit they did in fact speak with boldness (4:31).

But the word also has the nuance of confidence, knowing that you are speaking the truth; that you know the right answer, etc. In Acts 2:29 Peter makes an argument based on Scripture that Jesus is the Messiah, he says this “with confidence.” This is the confidence which I began with – knowing that something is certainly true gives you a confidence and boldness which a “guess” does not. Paul can speak from his house arrest with confidence because he knows the gospel he proclaims is the truth.

“Without hindrance” (ἀκωλύτως) indicates that there were no groups that stood in his way, as Paul had to deal with earlier in the book. Sometimes this rare word is used in legal contexts (P.Oxy 502, Ant. 12.104, 16.41, for example). The word might be used to describe some legal constraint, you cannot do want you want to because of a legal ruling (think of a restraining order in contemporary culture).

If we read the whole book of Acts, we might see quite a bit of “restraining” going on, things hinder the progress of the Gospel from the very beginning of Paul’s ministry.

  • Jews in Asia Minor actively work against him on the first missionary journey, attack him publicly and stone him at Lystra, leaving him for dead!
  • While Rome does not actively hinder Paul’s mission, he was in Roman custody several times in the book: at Philippi, nearly so at Thessalonica, he was arrested in Corinth, and was likely under arrest at some point in Ephesus, he cause a riot there as well. When he finally returned to Jerusalem he was taken into protective custody by Rome, but held for two years in Caesarea before being shipped to Rome, where he is under house arrest (at his own expense) for two years.
  • We might also add a kind of spiritual hindrance to this list as well. For example, Paul was forced to leave Thessalonica and was unable to return to the city, although he wanted to. In 1 Thess 3:18 he says that “Satan blocked our way,” literally “Satan tore up the road” so that Paul could not return and finish his work in the city. What happens in Corinth and Ephesus can also be taken as spiritual warfare, Satan was actively hindering Paul’s mission.

The book ends by telling us that there is nothing restraining the gospel, Paul is not hindered in the least by his imprisonment, and there is nothing Rome (or Jerusalem) can do to stop the gospel from going out to the ends of the earth.

In Acts 26 Paul re-tells his story to Festus, the new Roman governor. While there are a few differences, the story of Paul’s conversion is fairly consistent.  He had persecuted followers of the Way until he met the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus, whey he was commissioned to be the “light to the Gentiles.”

Festus interrupts Paul’s speech: “You are out of your mind!” (v. 24)  The Greek verb (μαίνομαι) has the sense of going too far with something, or even speech which appears crazy to an outsider (such as the reaction of outsiders to tongues in 1 Cor 14:23).  It is possible that this means that Paul’s knowledge of esoteric doctrines find things that are not necessarily true. This may reflect the common-sense “down to earth” Roman worldview. Festus is saying that the conclusions to which Paul comes is “beyond common sense,” not that these are strange and outlandish things.

Paul states that he is speaking “true and rational words” (v. 25)  This description is good Greek rhetoric, sobriety is a chief virtue in Greek philosophy.   The noun Paul chooses refers to the “exercise of care and intelligence appropriate to circumstances” (BDAG).  The noun Paul uses (σωφροσύνη) has the sense of a reasonable  conclusion based on the evidence, as opposed to someone who has crazy visions which he over-interprets to mean far more than it does.  Paul is not dreaming up some fairy tale, his conclusions are based on some rational thought and some very real evidence.

Agrippa, on the other hand, understands that Paul’s speech has a persuasive value, that he is trying to convince them both of the truth of the Gospel.  What Paul has done has “not been done in a corner,” but rather out in the open for all to hear and evaluate.  This too is a feature of good philosophy and rhetoric, those who engage in secrets and mysteries are questionable (and probably not sober and self-controlled).

JesusBoyfriendTo me, this is one of the most applicable sections of Acts – Paul’s faith is described by a Roman as “crazy” for believing what he does, but Paul says that he is “rational.”  I am deeply troubled by many Christians who reject reasonable thought based on evidence as a basis for Christian faith.  Too many prefer to call emphasize a “relationship with Jesus” rather than rational claims of truth about the nature of reality.  Christianity, as Paul is describing it here in Acts 26, is rational and reasonable.  Christianity, as presented in the media, or as practiced by many Americans, is irrational.  Paul would be ashamed of most of what passes for Christianity in contemporary evangelicalism.

I think that it is time to remember that God gave us minds and equipped us to think.  If we did that, what would change?

As soon as Paul arrives in Caesarea, prominent Jews from Jerusalem approach Festus for a “favor,” to release Paul to their custody.  What we know about Festus is generally good, especially when compared to Felix.  He dealt quickly with two separate messianic movements (Antiq. 20.8.10).  Unfortunately, Festus died after less than two years in office (A. D. 61-62) and his replacement Albinius was not an able administrator at all.

Porcius FestusWhen he arrives in Judea, Festus finds himself it a difficult situation politically.  He needs the help of the “ruling Jews” to manage the province of Judea. The elite of Jerusalem included the former high priests and other Herodians.  They were, by and large, interested in power and wealth (as most politicians are). There is a certain irony here, since these men do not represent a very large segment of the population on Judea in the mid first century! They are but one small splinter group of many at the time.  Festus buys very little influence over the people of Judea if he does do this elite group a “favor.”

The language of their request points to a formal alliance.  If Festus expects to have the support of the local elite, then he needs to hand Paul over to them for justice rather than release him.  It is quite remarkable that there is still a plot afoot to assassinate Paul (25:3). It has been two years since Paul’s alleged offense yet there is still a faction which considers him guilty of desecrating the Temple.  While this seems extreme, remember that bringing a Gentile into the court of the (Jewish) men was nearly as bad as the blasphemy committed by Antiochus IV Epiphanes.  That act of desecration was a major factor in the Maccabean revolt.  These enemies of Paul are burning with the same Zeal for the Law Paul had in Acts 9 when he traveled to Damascus to arrest followers of the Way.

Festus sees that there is nothing about Paul that requires punishment.  In fact, these are not even real accusations being made against Paul!   Paul’s accusers are not present, therefore the very basis of a case against him in Roman law is missing.  This was Paul’s point in his defense before Felix (his accusers are the Asian Jews, who disappear when the action moves to Caesarea).

Luke only briefly comments on Paul’s defense before Festus, although he adds the claim that Paul has neither offended the Temple or Caesar.  This is the first time that Paul has emphasized that he is not guilty of anything under Roman law.  Paul clearly realizes that his only chance at justice is to rely upon his citizenship.

When Paul arrives in Jerusalem, he meets with “James and the Elders.”  As it turns out, there are many Jews in Jerusalem who are believers in the Gospel and are still  following the laws and traditions of the Jews (21:20).  This is not unexpected– Jesus did not come to destroy the Law and does not teach anything that might be taken as a rejection of the Law or Temple worship.  While Jesus may have rejected the traditions of the Pharisees, he lived as any Jew might have in the first century.

temple2James describes the Jerusalem church as very large, the NIV has “thousands,” translating the Greek “myriads.” While this might seem like a bit of hyperbole, there were several thousand people mentioned in Acts 2 and 3, so it is not unlikely that there have been additional converts in the many years that have passed.

But there is a problem.  There are some among their church that think that Paul is a false teacher  by teaching that Gentiles should turn away from the Law (vs. 21).  Is this true?  Certainly Paul taught that Gentiles were not under the law, in fact, in Galatians he is quite strong in his condemnation of these same zealots who were teaching the Gentiles to keep the law. With respect to Jews, it is true that we do not have a text which clearly indicates that he told Jews to continue keeping the law and traditions of Israel. It may or may not be the case that Paul considered ceremonial law and traditions matters of indifference.

Witherington seems to allow for more possibility that Paul taught that traditions were not required.  Certainly Galatians could be read as a repudiation of the Law, although it seems that Paul only has in mind Gentile converts.  In the end, that may still be the heart of the problem – what Paul has created is something new and different.  People are converting to a belief in Jesus as savior apart from Law rather than converting to Judaism or converting to a particular messianic conviction within Judaism (Acts, 648).

Based on Paul’s behavior in Acts, it may well be he would have told the Jews to continue keeping the Law.  He required Timothy be circumcised, for example, and he had made a vow while in Corinth. Later he will claim that he has continued to keep the law, although one wonders to what extent he kept the boundary markers of the Law these conservatives Jews would have expected from him.

James proposes that Paul prove his loyalty by submitting to the Nazarite vow along with a few men (vs. 22-25).   Dunn rightly observes that James does not deny the rumor: “the advice of James and the elders is carefully calibrated.  They do not disown the rumors.  Instead they suggest that Paul disprove the rumors by his own action, by showing that he himself still lived in observance of the Law” (Dunn, Acts, 287).  The fact that James drops out of the story after Paul’s arrest is a mystery – why does James not come to the aid of Paul?  No Christians are willing to defend Paul when he goes before the Sanhedrin.  Why is this?  It seems as though Paul has less support in Jerusalem in A.D. 58 than we might have expected.

Does Paul make a mistake in sponsoring the vow in the Temple?  Some people think it would have been unlike Paul to “keep Law” at this point in his career.  What is his ultimate motivation for doing this?  Does he really need to “prove himself” to be faithful at this late date?

Sheep Stealing

Paul’s plan is to by-pass Ephesus and meet the Elders at Miletus, thirty miles from Ephesus. What was the purpose of this plan? Paul’s desire is to get to Jerusalem as rapidly as possible, so he may have simply wanted to avoid Ephesus. Had he stopped there, he would have had so many obligations that he would have never been able to meet his schedule. He would lose more time in Ephesus than if he  meets the elders in Miletus. Another possibility is that Paul’s ship was scheduled to stop in Miletus, not Ephesus. One did not book travel on a passenger ship in the ancient world, all travel was on cargo ships and one was often at the mercy of the cargo-schedule

When the elders arrive, Paul warns them of trials they will have to face in the near future (Acts 20:25-31). Paul employs a common metaphor to warn the elders from Ephesus that they are about to face trials.  Since elders are appointed by the Holy Spirit to the task of shepherding the flock, the natural metaphor for an attack against the flock is a “savage wolf.”  The elders are to keep watch over the church in order to guard it against enemies.  But this also involves watching themselves – they are to be worthy shepherds! These “wolves” seek to tear the congregation apart, and at this point may refer to elements in Ephesus, whether Greek or Jewish, that see Christianity as a threat.

Paul also warns of threats which will arise from within the congregation itself.  Perhaps the most disturbing prediction is that these wolves may very well arise from within their congregation – some men will arise, distort the truth, and draw disciples away after them.

This is exactly the situation we find in 1 Timothy, a letter written by Paul several years later to Timothy while he worked in Ephesus.  The false teachers are “insiders,” people from within the church that are distorting the truth.  Based on 1 Timothy and  Acts 20:30, it appears that the false teachers were elders from within the Ephesian church. The are teachers (1 Tim 1:3, 7, 6:3) and the task of teaching in the church is given to the elders (1 Tim 3:2, 5:17).

SheepIt is important that we not read this with a 21st century view of church in mind.  The elders are likely presiding over small house churches.  A city the size of Ephesus would likely have had many house churches by the time 1 Timothy is written.  There may have been a few elders who hosted a church in their home that have departed from the body of teaching Paul taught for the three years he was in Ephesus.  It is these elders that Paul wants to discipline.

At this point in Acts, the “savage wolves” are in the future – or are they?  Paul’s plan is to by-pass Ephesus and meet the Elders at Miletus, thirty miles from Ephesus.  While it is possible Paul simply wanted to avoid obligations to meet with many people in Ephesus in order to get to Jerusalem as soon as possible, it seems to me that the problems which 1 Timothy addresses are already surfacing.  This meeting at Miletus, then, is a gathering of loyal elders who still can be trusted by Paul.

Is it possible that Paul’s speech reflects the situation of the post-apostolic church?  What happens when Paul dies? Who “takes over”?  It seems to me that Paul is telling these shepherds that they are now in charge of the flock, and they have to be on guard against internal and external threats to the health of the church.

This “guarding” function is an important application for modern churches since most threats against the church are not coming from the outside (the government is not our greatest enemy, believe it or not!), but from other Christians, “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

Paul leaves Ephesus with the intention of returning to Jerusalem for the purpose of delivering the collection to the Jerusalem church at Pentecost. The collection was a gift from the Gentile churches to the Jerusalem believers.  Romans 15:26 states that “Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem,” a text written from Corinth in the three-month period after Paul’s Ephesian ministry.

Collection PlatePaul has does this sort collection for Jerusalem before.  Before the first missionary journey in Acts 13, Paul delivered funds to Jerusalem collected by the Antioch church.  This visit is the subject of Gal 2:1-10.  In Gal 2:10 Paul said that the James had only encouraged him to “remember the poor.”  The “poor” in mind here are the members of the Jerusalem church, the very people the famine visit was intended to help.

The Jerusalem appears to be still living in a sort of shared community, supported by gifts.  Given a famine (and possibly a Jubilee year), the poor believers in Jerusalem were even more dependent on Antioch than ever.  Ben Witherington wonders if the handshake was an agreement to continue the financial arrangements between the Antioch church and the Jerusalem church (Acts, 429). This is possible since the same sort of language appears in Acts 15 as well, although the collection is not mentioned.

The Collection was unique in the ancient world.  The Greco-Roman world has a system of public benefaction, but nothing like a modern “fund-raiser” where people are solicited for money which is then distributed to the poor.  Likewise, in Judaism the poor received Alms from individuals, but money was not collected in mass for re-distribution to the poor.  Which the exception of Queen Abiabene, who brought relief to Jerusalem (Antiq. 20:51-51), there are no other examples of this sort of collection of funds.

Since Paul is collecting this money in the Greek world, it would have been unprecedented and would have looked very suspicious. Likely as not, the inclusion of representatives of the churches was meant to give confidence to the churches that Paul was not going to steal the funds and disappear.  Notice that in Acts 20:4 there is a list of names traveling with Paul, all likely representatives of Paul’s churches in Macedonia (Thessalonica, Berea) Asia Minor (Derbe) Paul was careful to separate his own ministry from the Collection for the Saints.  While he did not require churches to give to support him, he is adamant that churches “give what they can” to the Collection.

What is unusual is that Luke does not mention the collection at all, although that seems to be the point of the large part traveling back to Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost. Why Luke would omit this collection is a mystery – some have speculated that the collection was not well-received by the Jerusalem church, perhaps even rejected.  The scene is rather tense in Jerusalem when Paul arrives with a large contingent of Gentiles to deliver the gift.

What was the “point” Paul was trying to make with this collection?  If the collection was rejected, why would James (or the Jerusalem Christians)  reject the generosity of the Gentile churches?

Bibliography: Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, 932-947; S. McKnight, “The Collection for the Saints” in DPL, 143-147. The collection is mentioned in 1 Cor 16:1-4, 2 Cor 8-9 and Rom 15:25-32.

Phillip J. Long:

This was written by one of my students. He has some good thoughts, interacting with Michael Bird and some things I said a few days ago here. Go read it, let him know what you think!

Originally posted on taczhompson:

This week for my Acts class, we had to comment on a post about the city of Corinth being referred to as “Sin City”, and it brought to mind some rather significant things about the culture we live in. I feel like, too often, Christians look around at the culture they live in, and see no hope for the salvation of our nation. Or, we look at everyone around us, and make unrealistically quick judgements about how “sinful” that person’s life must be. The city of Corinth is often related to our culture, because it is assumed that is was an “un-ordinarily” (I’m not entirely sure if that’s actually a word) sinful city. The relations is that it is also assumed that our culture is the same level of sinful.

I have heard Corinth spoken with the illustration of “Sin City” so many times, I had never even questioned it…

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Phillip J. Long

Phillip J. Long

I am a college professor who enjoys reading, listening to music and drinking fine coffee. Often at the same time.

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29 Mount of Olives 06

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