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Studies in the Book of Acts

Most of this series was written by Paul Kroll, a journalist working for Grace Communion International. Copyright Grace Communion International. The research was done in the mid 1990s, but all articles were edited in 2012 by Michael Morrison, PhD, professor of Biblical Studies at Grace Communion Seminary.

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Date: Wednesday, July 24, 2019, 5:57 AM

Introduction to Acts

This book is commonly called “The Acts of the Apostles,” but it does not discuss most of the apostles – it focuses only on Peter, and then Paul. The book describes the spread of Christianity from its origins with Jews in Jerusalem, to eventually include all peoples, even in the capital city of the Roman Empire. The story is filled with drama, miracles, and speeches about the risen Christ.

What’s in a name?

The traditional name for this book is “Acts of the Apostles,” but a more accurate name might be “A Few Acts of a Few of the Apostles.” Peter and Paul are particularly prominent; the other apostles play little or no role. The book describes some developments in detail, but sometimes skips several years at a time.

sailing ship. Artwork by Ken Tunell“Acts of the Risen Jesus” might also be an appropriate name for this book. Luke tells us that his first book (the Gospel of Luke) was “about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven” (Acts 1:1-2). Acts is the second volume of Luke’s history-writing project; it is about what Jesus did after his ascension into heaven — he directed and taught the apostles through the Holy Spirit.

As Jesus had promised (John 16:713), he sent the Spirit to guide the apostles after he returned to heaven. Since this book frequently reminds us that the actions of the apostles were inspired and guided by God’s Spirit, “Acts of the Holy Spirit” has also been suggested as a descriptive title.

Outline

The first part of this book is about Peter, and the second part is about Paul. This two-fold division is one of the simplest ways to divide the book of Acts, but its focus on two men tends to cover up some important aspects of Luke’s story. Peter’s ministry and Paul’s are not separate stories — they are related to each other, and they overlap in several chapters in the center of Acts.

Some commentators have outlined the book geographically, using a formula Jesus gave his disciples: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Although Luke begins the story in Jerusalem, he does not stick to a precise geographical sequence. Philip’s work in Samaria (Acts 8:5-25) is described before Peter’s work in Judea (Acts 9:32-43). Later, the story moves back and forth from Antioch to Jerusalem, from Europe back to Asia, back to Jerusalem, etc. And the book ends with Paul in Rome, which was the center of the Empire, not “the ends of the earth.”

Geography is important to Luke, but it is not the only important framework for his story about the earliest years of Christianity. Luke also has ethnic interests — he especially wants to explain how Christianity moved from its Jewish foundations to spread to the Gentile world.

Acts can be divided into five major sections that combine some of Luke’s emphases, as shown in the table below.

partmajor personalitiesgeographical regionsethnic groups
1Peter and JohnJerusalemJews
2Greek-speaking Jews: Philip and StephenJerusalem, Samaria and JudeaJews, Samaritans and an Ethiopian eunuch
3Paul and PeterDamascus, Judea, Antioch, Jerusalem and AsiaJews, God-fearing Gentiles and pagans
4Paul the missionaryEurope and Asia MinorGentiles and Jews
5Paul the prisonerJerusalem, Caesarea and RomeGentile rulers, Gentiles and Jews

How to read this book

Acts tells the story of how Christianity began and spread. No history book ever has enough space to tell all the facts. The historian must select the facts that are most important and the events that played critical roles in the development of later situations. The historian must interpret the facts and present them in an organized way. Luke does this well. With literary skill, he gives numerous details and interesting personality sketches that help us understand what happened.

Luke is probably writing in the manner of the Greek historians Xenophon and Plutarch. What this means is that a selection of the hero’s acts…, historical vignettes which set forth the hero’s character, are his major concern. The Book of Acts, then, is not a mere chronicle of events, but a portrayal of the kinds of people and kinds of things that were taking place in the early church. [Note: William H. Baker, “Acts,” Evangelical Commentary of the Bible, edited by Walter Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1989), 884.]

Luke tells us what happened, but he rarely indicates what should happen today. For example, he tells us that seven men were chosen to wait on tables (Acts 6:1-6), but he does not tell us whether churches should follow that example today. This book is descriptive, not prescriptive — it is history, not law.

Luke, in addition to being a historian, is also a Christian teacher writing about his own faith. In the introduction to his first volume of history, he says that one of his purposes is to help readers understand the truthfulness of the Christian faith (Luke 1:4). Similarly, Luke has selected events in church history that help show Christian doctrine and practice; he has quietly omitted facts that might confuse the reader. Regarding circumcision, for example, he says there was a heated debate (Acts 15:2), but he reports the arguments of only one side of the controversy. What Luke writes is true — it is historically accurate — but it is also theologically selective.

Ancient histories often included speeches. There are 18 speeches in Acts. Many of them record the basic message of the early church. Just as Acts 1:8 gives a rough geographical preview of the book of Acts, Luke 24 gives us a preview of the theological message: “This is what is written [in the Scriptures]: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised” [the Holy Spirit]” (Luke 24:46-49).

Several speeches or sermons in Acts contain similar concise descriptions of the gospel. They argue that Jesus is the Messiah, that he fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, that God raised him from the dead and that he is the answer to Jewish and Gentile hopes. Speeches are better at communicating these ideas than a historical description could be. As we read these speeches, we can learn important truths, not just ancient history.

Learning about God

Unlike most history books, Acts is filled with references to God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. The story simply wouldn’t have been possible without God. He started it, motivated it and gave it direction, energy, purpose, message and protection. Luke does not give us a systematic description of God, but he describes what God did with the church.

The word “God” appears more than 160 times in the book. He is the Creator, the God of the Old Testament, who speaks through the Scriptures. He is praised, worshiped, obeyed and prayed to. Luke tells us repeatedly that God sent Jesus Christ, raised him from the dead, glorified him and gave him authority. God is the One who calls people to repentance, who gives the Holy Spirit, who directs the mission. It is his work — the message is about “the kingdom of God,” “the word of God,” the gospel of “the grace of God.”

“Lord” appears about 110 times, usually referring to Jesus. (“Jesus” appears 68 times, often in the combination “Lord Jesus”). Luke rarely uses the term “Son” (four times), just as he only rarely uses “Father” (three times). His choice of words probably reflects the needs of his Gentile readers. We are told that “the Lord” did the works of the apostles, that they preached his name, that he appeared in visions to direct the work, and that he was prayed to. Just as the gospel was called the word of God, it is also called “the word of the Lord.” Those who repented and believed were “added to the Lord.”

Luke uses “Christ” only 31 times. In Paul’s letters, and in modern Christianity, “Christ” is often treated as part of Jesus’ name: “Jesus Christ.” Luke, however, often uses “Christ” in its original meaning, Messiah: “Jesus is the Christ.” (The Greek word Christos means “anointed,” just as the Hebrew word Mashiyach [Messiah] does). Luke sometimes uses “Christ” as a name, too, as in the combination “the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Luke tells us much about the Holy Spirit. Although Acts contains only 13 percent of the words of the New Testament, it contains 23 percent of the occurrences of the word “Spirit.” In the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit is active — speaking and directing the work; the Spirit is the power by which the apostles testified that Jesus is the Christ (Acts 1:8).

Other topics

While Luke tells the story of the spread of the Christian gospel from Jerusalem to Rome, he is also able to achieve some additional purposes. A major theological goal is to explain why Christianity was becoming more Gentile than Jewish. Luke stresses the connection that Christianity has with Jews and with the Old Testament, and explains how God and the risen Jesus directed that the message extend to all nations, as the Old Testament had predicted. Jesus fulfills the hopes and needs of Gentiles as well as of Jews.

Luke seems to have a political objective, too — to show that Christianity was not a threat to the Roman government. Although riots sometimes broke out when the gospel was preached, Luke notes that the problems were caused by Jews or Gentiles, not the Christian preachers. Christianity was rooted in Judaism, which was a legal religion. Roman officials repeatedly find Paul innocent of wrong-doing, and they allow the gospel to continue to be preached.

Luke also defends Paul against accusations that he was preaching against Judaism. Although Gentile believers did not have to “must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5), Paul did not teach Jews to abandon their traditions. He participated in Jewish rituals both in Ephesus and in Jerusalem. Luke shows us that Paul had been forced to preach to Gentiles — Jesus miraculously called him and commissioned him; the Antioch church sent him out; the apostle Peter preached to Gentiles before Paul did; Paul preached to Jews first and to Gentiles only after Jews rejected the gospel.

In practical matters of Christian life, Luke emphasizes repentance, faith, baptism and forgiveness of sins. He emphasizes that the Holy Spirit gives believers courage to faithfully witness to Jesus Christ in the face of persecution. He also stresses prayer — asking God for help, and thanking him for his deliverance.

What this book means for you

Acts has both history and faith. Historically, the book serves as a vital link between the Gospels and the epistles. It bridges the gap between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. In the Gospels, Jesus is preaching; in the epistles, Jesus is being preached. The book of Acts explains how the messenger became the center of the message.

This is particularly important when we read the epistles of Paul, because, without the book of Acts, we would not know who Paul was or how he entered the picture or what motivated him to preach to Gentiles or why he wrote to such far-flung regions.

Luke’s picture of Paul is not in perfect agreement with Paul’s self-description. Luke describes Paul as a bold orator; Paul sometimes describes himself as a poor speaker. Both writers have more important purposes than merely to focus on a personal description. Both writers can be correct. Although some scholars emphasize the differences and claim that Luke’s account is wrong, other scholars explain differences as literary matters without rejecting the accuracy of either writer.

Luke gives us glimpses into the personalities of Peter, John and James, who wrote other New Testament books. He shows us the remarkable transformation that the Holy Spirit produced in Peter, who went from denying Jesus three times to boldly defying the Jewish leaders and telling them to their faces that he would continue to preach about Jesus. The sudden boldness of the apostles is testimony that God raised Jesus from the dead and gave these fishermen dramatic conviction and power.

Luke also records the persecutions of Peter, the martyrdoms of Stephen and James, the stonings and beatings and imprisonments of Paul. Whether they lived or died, captive or free, these Christians were led by the Holy Spirit to testify that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.

The book of Acts may be read for history, and it may also be read to strengthen our faith and commitment to Jesus Christ. As we read, we can put ourselves in the apostles’ sandals, to feel their boldness in preaching the gospel and their fears when facing persecution. We can marvel that the apostles, right after being flogged, were “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name [of Jesus]” (Acts 5:41). And by reading about their faith and perseverance, we can be a little more emboldened to face our own crises with the help of the same Holy Spirit.

Acts 1:1-11

The Church Begins in Jerusalem

Introductory Events

Promise of the Holy Spirit (1:1-5)

Luke begins this part of his history by reminding readers of his previous book, the Gospel of Luke, and the situation he had described at the end of that book. Jesus suffered and died and was raised from the dead. He appeared to the disciples and gave them a dramatic new understanding of the Scriptures (Luke 24:25-2745). The Old Testament had not only predicted the Messiah and his suffering, but it also predicted that “repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations” (verse 47).

How would this prophecy be fulfilled? Jesus reminded the disciples that they had seen the fulfillment of Messianic prophecies (verse 48) — and in this Jesus implied that the disciples would be involved in fulfilling the biblical prediction about preaching.

How could the disciples preach to all nations? The Gospel of Luke does not tell us. But it tells us that Jesus told the disciples to “stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (verse 49). What is this power, and what is it for? This is where Acts picks up the story. Jesus taught his disciples about the kingdom of God and told them to wait in Jerusalem for a special gift from God (Acts 1:4). “In a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (verse 5). Luke, the inspired story-teller, is setting the stage for the dramatic events that will soon be narrated.

Jesus ascends to heaven (1:6-11)

The disciples had much to learn! Although Jesus had taught them about God’s kingdom, their final question to Jesus was about the kingdom — but they asked from a Jewish perspective, leaving the Gentiles out of the picture (verse 6). The disciples’ choice of words indicates that they had forgotten about preaching forgiveness to all nations. Instead, they wanted the Messiah to bring glory and power to the Jewish people living in the land of Israel. This had been the Jewish hope for centuries. But the Jewish nation was not yet ready for the leader God had chosen. They rejected him and killed him, and, as Acts shows, most Jews continued to reject him even after his resurrection.

Moreover, a national kingdom was not the kind of kingdom that Jesus wanted his disciples to preach about. So Jesus did not answer their question. Instead, Jesus reminded them of the promise and the prophecy (verse 8), and told them to wait. He states it clearly: The power from God is the Holy Spirit, and the disciples, who were witnesses of Jesus’ ministry, were to carry the message throughout the world.

Jesus had given them a mission, just as he had done twice before (Luke 9:110:1). They were to be a witness for Jesus — to preach about him, his resurrection, and the fact that repentance and forgiveness can be obtained through him.

But the gospel could not go to all the world while Jesus was physically on earth. As long as he remained, he would be the primary preacher and he would be a geographical focus. Jesus wanted to delegate more responsibility to the disciples. He wanted to enable them to be the teachers. He wanted not just for God to be with them, but in them. After God began to live in the disciples, they would be able to go into all the world with the knowledge that God would always be with them, helping them understand the Scriptures and the mission, helping them through physical difficulties, energizing them in their work.

And, to the astonishment of the disciples, Jesus ascended into heaven. Two angels appeared and informed the disciples that Jesus would return. The angels did not say when he would return. The disciples were simply left with the command to stay in Jerusalem until they received the Holy Spirit.

Christ’s answer focuses our thoughts on other people. Instead of dwelling on the physical things we want, we should focus on the spiritual blessings we have already been given, and we should share them with others. We who have been given the Holy Spirit should share the good news of salvation — that people of all nations can become part of the people of God through faith, repentance, forgiveness and the Holy Spirit. We do not need to worry about when Christ will return. We simply need to be doing the mission he has given his people in the meantime.The disciples’ question and Jesus’ answer continue to be relevant today. Many Christians want physical blessings from God’s kingdom. They eagerly pray for Christ to return in their lifetime so he will solve their problems. However, the spiritual blessings that Christ will bring are much more important than the physical blessings. Despite that, it is easy for us physical beings to focus on our physical needs.

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The Dedications of Luke and Acts (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-2)

Luke began his book, which we call the “Acts of the Apostles” or simply “Acts,” by continuing his story where he ended it in the Gospel. Luke’s Gospel had described Jesus’ work in Galilee, Judea and especially Jerusalem. It ended, as did the other three Gospels, with Jesus’ death and resurrection. Acts continues the story. It describes the growth of the church and the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to important cities of the Roman Empire, and then Rome itself.

Luke was one of the few writers to explain why he wrote his works, and this helps us to know what his purposes were. Knowing his aims makes us better able to understand Acts. To perceive Luke’s aims and what he hoped to accomplish in Acts, we must go back to his dedication at the beginning of his Gospel (Luke 1:1-4). There Luke told us that during his research and gathering of material for Acts he personally and “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” (verse 3).

Thus, he could “write an orderly account” of what he knew about the Christian movement. What Luke wrote was not made up out of his own imagination nor based on his personal opinion. Acts was based on information “handed down” to him from “those who from the first were eyewitnesses” (verse 2). This means we can have confidence that what Luke wrote in his Gospel and Acts was correct. However, he felt free to omit information that did not support his purpose.

Luke-Acts was written as a two-part work. This is implied in the first verse of Acts when Luke again addresses Theophilus and speaks of his “former book,” that is, his Gospel (1:1). Luke-Acts is dedicated to an individual, whom Luke calls “most excellent Theophilus” (Luke 1:3). The phrase means “your excellency,” and could refer to a prominent official in government service. Luke uses the same Greek word to refer to the Roman governors Felix and Festus (23:26; 24:3; 26:25). However, the title was also used as a form of polite address, as a courtesy. It would be something like our “Dear Sir” or “Dear Madam,” with which letters are sometimes opened.

Some commentators have also suggested that “Theophilus,” which means “Friend of God” or “Loved of God,” is a symbolic name, meant to represent a class of people, the church perhaps. In this view, Luke would be addressing his work to the “Honored Christian Reader.” More likely, however, Theophilus was a real person, with a name that others also had in ancient times.

It was not uncommon for writers to dedicate their books to distinguished persons. We have the example of the Jewish historian Josephus (A.D. 37-c.100), who dedicated his two-part work, Against Apion, to an individual named Epaphroditus. Josephus introduced his first volume by addressing him as: “Epaphroditus, most excellent of men” (1:1). [In citations from Josephus, the first number will refer to his book number and the second to the numbers used in the Greek text, which also appear in some English translations.]  The second book of Against Apion begins with these words: “By means of the former volume, my most honored Epaphroditus, I have demonstrated our antiquity…” (2:1). Here we see opening words that are strikingly similar to Luke’s dedication.

It would help us to know some things about Theophilus in order to better grasp what Acts is about. We might want to know some of the following: What was the relationship of Theophilus to the church? Was Theophilus new in the faith, or was he interested in becoming a Christian? Did Theophilus live in Rome or in some other city?

Luke’s dedication to his Gospel implies that Theophilus may have been interested in discipleship, or was already a Christian. There, Luke told Theophilus that he wrote Luke-Acts for him, “so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:4). F.F. Bruce painted the following fairly reasonable portrait of Theophilus:

It is quite probable that Theophilus was a representative member of the intelligent middle-class public at Rome whom Luke wished to win over to a less prejudiced and more favorable opinion of Christianity than that which was current among them….Theophilus had already learned something about the rise and progress of Christianity, and Luke’s aim was to put him in possession of more accurate information than he already had. [F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Rev. ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 29.]

We would like to know who Theophilus was and the specific questions in his mind. This would help us better understand Luke’s purposes for writing, and how we are to understand the book. We can infer some things about Theophilus, as the above shows, but unfortunately only in a general way. Judging by the content of Acts, Luke wrote to give Theophilus a reliable account of the beginning and growth of Christianity around the Empire. That’s why he chose to describe only limited aspects of the gospel’s progress and the Christian movement’s growth.

However, Luke probably had a much wider readership in view than just Theophilus. The fact that both the Gospel and Acts have survived indicates that the two volumes were copied, widely distributed in the churches, and publicly read. Luke’s approach of writing to a single individual but having a broad reading audience in view was common during the times. We saw that Josephus, for example, wrote his work Against Apion to one individual. Yet, clearly he expected that his defense of the Jewish religion would be widely circulated. Luke must have also expected that his two-volume work would be used to instruct Christians throughout the Roman Empire about the growth of the church.

What was Luke trying to get across to his readers in Acts? At the beginning of Acts, Luke tells us that the purpose of his first book was to write “about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven” (1:1-2). While not explicitly stated, Luke’s purpose in Acts seems to be to show the continuing work of Jesus, carried out by the power of the Holy Spirit through the church. In short, Luke is saying that Jesus is alive, and his life and work proceed in the church — and in greater power.

In the words of David Williams, “Luke’s thesis is this: Jesus remains active, though the manner of his working has changed. Now, no longer in the flesh, he continues ‘to do and to teach’ through his ‘body’ the church….This is the story of Acts.” [David J. Williams, Acts, New International Bible Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990), 19.]  Luke’s general purpose would have been to confirm what Theophilus knew about this continuing work, and to instruct him in an organized manner about the details he did not know. The objective would have been to confirm the faith of Theophilus in the work of Christ.

But what was Luke’s specific purpose? Commentators have put forth many proposals. Almost certainly, Luke had more than one purpose in writing. Thus it would not be wise to lock onto one aim, and claim that this was the purpose. By a careful study of the contents of Luke-Acts, we can fix fairly well what information Luke wanted to convey to his readers. This will become clear as we make our way through the book. For the moment, we can briefly look at some broad strokes Luke painted for us in Acts:

  • He described the spread of the gospel message in certain areas of the Roman Empire.
  • Luke paid particular attention to explaining how the ministry of Paul related to that of Peter and the church at Jerusalem.
  • He also dealt with the relationship of the Christian church and its mission to the work of Jesus.
  • At the same time, Luke discussed the connection between Judaism and the church, as well as the church’s relations with the government of Rome.

By the time Luke wrote (conservative estimates vary between a.d. 62 and 85) the apostles Peter and Paul had been martyred by the Roman government. Christians may have been accused of being bad citizens, whose beliefs worked against the best interests of the state. Perhaps they were even accused of being enemies of the Empire. We know that Christians were often accused of anti-government behavior by the Jews, most of whom had rejected the gospel.

When Luke wrote, Christians were being spoken against as both government subversives and perverters of the Jewish religion. Questions may have arisen in people’s minds about whether Christianity was a legitimate religion or a dangerous sect. A recent convert or one interested in becoming a disciple — such as Theophilus — would have been challenged by such questions. He needed to know the truth about such accusations, to have the record set straight. In fact, all recent converts (or interested parties) may have wondered why Christians were so despised.

Luke’s work would have helped Christians answer these questions for themselves — and to have answers for “outsiders” as well. Acts may have even served the church as an apologetic document that set the record straight about the major accusations it faced.

Preparation for the Gospel (Acts 1:3-26)

Jesus lives (1:3)

In Acts, Luke emphasizes the living Christ. He is the one who guides the growth of the church and directs the spread of the gospel across the Roman Empire. The resurrection was the hope of Israel, something that Peter and Paul stressed in their sermons to the Jews. (And, of course, it is also the hope of the church.) For these reasons, the resurrection of Jesus, and his exaltation, take center stage in Acts.

Jesus gave “many convincing proofs” that he was alive — he appeared to the disciples over a period of 40 days (1:3). (This occurred within the seven weeks between Passover, when Jesus was crucified, and Pentecost, when the Spirit came with power.) The number 40 recalls the 40 days during which Moses received instruction on Mount Sinai. But here it is Jesus who gives the instructions, this time from the Mount of Olives (1:12).

Moses had been given the first covenant for ancient Israel to have. Now, the apostles are given the program for the renewal of Israel — to preach the gospel of salvation to the world and to teach disciples. Both aims are to be accomplished through the Holy Spirit.

During the 40 days of appearances, the apostles saw a Jesus who was alive, but who had been dead. They were left with an unshakable faith in Jesus as one who could deliver the goods of salvation, so to speak. He was their Savior, and the Savior of the world. Of this they were fully and irrevocably convinced.

Luke does not ignore the meaning of Jesus’ death, but he does not stress it in the way Paul does in his letters. Luke was more interested in showing that the work of the church was empowered by the living Christ through the Holy Spirit. Its missionary work was not a human-directed movement. It was based on a divine commission, and divinely empowered.

The kingdom of God (1:3)

During the 40 days during which Jesus appeared to the disciples, he “spoke about the kingdom of God.” We know from the Gospels that this was the substance of his message throughout his ministry. [Matthew 4:17Mark 1:14-15Luke 4:43John 3:5.]  During his appearances to his disciples, he clarified the meaning of the kingdom in the light of his ministry of salvation. The kingdom message now had a different thrust, a different emphasis. The witnesses preached Jesus as the resurrected and living Savior (2:24, 31-33). He was the representative of God’s kingdom doing a “kingdom work” through his church.

The apostles and evangelists continued to preach the revitalized theme of the kingdom. [See Acts 8:1214:2219:820:2528:2331.]  It was a convenient way to summarize, particularly to Jews, that all the promises to the patriarchs had been fulfilled. The kingdom of God had come with power in the person of the resurrected Son of God (Romans 1:1-4). It came not to save the Jews from the heel of the Roman Empire, but to save them from a far worse oppression: sin and death.

In Acts, Luke also stressed that Jesus’ rule (hence, his kingdom) was coming in the life of the church — and in the preaching of the gospel. When Jesus preached those messages described in the Gospel of Luke, he was proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom of God. The book of Acts is simply an extension of Jesus’ work. It details the spreading of the good news by the witnesses.

Wait for the promised gift (1:4-5)

The first task of the disciples is to “wait for the gift my Father promised” (1:4). The apostles are not to leave Jerusalem. They are not to preach anything, nor undertake any missionary program for the moment. They are to wait for the Holy Spirit to begin the work. This command in Acts is repeated by Luke from his Gospel (24:49). This underscores the importance of the Holy Spirit to the success of the New Testament gospel mission. Luke is telling us the Spirit is essential to the advance of the good news.

As we proceed through the book of Acts, we will notice that the Holy Spirit plays an important role in every advance of the gospel. Luke’s point is that the success of the Christian mission is not due to the efforts of charismatic men and women. The gospel will be proclaimed and the church will develop because God willed it, Jesus Christ directed it and the Holy Spirit carried it out. It is a Trinitarian mission.

Throughout Luke’s narrative, the Holy Spirit is the impelling force behind the mission program of the church. The agenda for disseminating the message of salvation — from Jerusalem to Rome — is orchestrated by the Holy Spirit. So important is the Spirit in the life of the church, that Luke’s work has sometimes been called the “Acts of the Holy Spirit.” William Barclay wrote:

The Holy Spirit was the source of all guidance. The Spirit moves Philip to make contact with the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:29); prepares Peter for the coming of the emissaries of Cornelius (Acts 10:19); orders Peter to go without hesitation with these emissaries (Acts 11:12); orders the setting apart of Paul and Barnabas for the momentous step of taking the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 13:2,4); guides the decisions of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:28); guides Paul past Asia, Mysia and Bithynia, down into Troas and thence to Europe (Acts 16:6); tells Paul what awaits him in Jerusalem (Acts 20:23). [William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, revised edition, The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), 19.]

Five circumstances are described in Acts during which a dramatic outpouring of the Holy Spirit on believers occurs. [Acts 2:1-44:28-318:15-1710:4419:6.]  In fact, the first 13 chapters of Acts contain more that 40 references to the Holy Spirit. In the entire book, the Holy Spirit is mentioned over 60 times. The leaders of the church are people of the Spirit (6:3; 7:55; 11:24). The Spirit helps and guides the entire church on a daily basis (1:8; 4:31; 13:9).

Here in the first chapter, the Spirit is mentioned four times (verses 2, 5, 8, 16). The point is clear. The story Luke is about to tell regarding the church and its mission is under the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit. The message is that the same Holy Spirit who came upon Jesus at his baptism also empowers the church so it can continue Jesus’ work on earth.

The book is about the continuing work of Jesus Christ through his church, through the Holy Spirit. Luke’s Gospel tells us about “all that Jesus began to do and teach”; this implies that Acts is about the continuing work of Jesus (1:1). After all, it is the risen Jesus who instructs the disciples to wait for the Spirit.

Jesus does not disappear from the pages of Acts — his name appears 86 times in Luke and 68 times in Acts. In large portions of Acts, the Holy Spirit is not mentioned at all, or only in passing. It is the Lord Jesus (not the Spirit) who stood near Paul to tell him he would testify in Rome (23:11). Jesus also appeared to Paul in Corinth, to assure him that he should not be afraid but keep on speaking (18:9). Sometimes angels delivered messages to the missionaries or instructions were mediated by prophets. [Acts 5:198:2627:2311:2820:11.]

In Luke’s theology, God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are easily interchangeable. In one place, the Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of Jesus (16:7).

Restore the kingdom now? (1:6)

The apostles still thought that Jesus was soon “going to restore the kingdom to Israel” (1:6). They seemed to be viewing the kingdom of God as a restored national Israel. This idea of Israel as the people of God was deeply imbedded in the Hebrew Scriptures. They spoke, for example, of a people God had chosen “out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 7:6).

There was a Jewish expectation that when Israel was restored to national glory, the Holy Spirit would again become active (Jeremiah 31:33Ezekiel 11:19). After all, the prophets of old had promised that in the last days the fortunes of Israel would be restored and God would pour out his Spirit on all people (Joel 2:28-3:1). In Acts 2, Peter quotes Joel’s prophecy and says it is being fulfilled at the time (2:16-17).

The disciples thought that Jesus would restore the glory of Israel. They “had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). They had left everything to follow Jesus, thinking he would give them positions of great authority in that kingdom (Mark 10:35-37Luke 22:24-30). Naturally, they were profoundly shocked and discouraged when Jesus was executed, but they had then been energized by his resurrection. Now, in his post-resurrection appearances he was speaking of the disciples being baptized with the Holy Spirit of power (1:5, 8). Since this was a sign of the new age, it must have awakened in them the hope that the messianic age had come.

We can see something of the disciples’ sense of agitated excitement in the way they ask Jesus about the restoration of Israel. They don’t ask whether this restoration will occur. Rather, they wonder, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (1:6).

Not for you to know (1:7)

Jesus gave the disciples an indefinite answer to the question. He told them it wasn’t for them to know “the times or dates” of any restoration in a national or political sense (1:7). That had been his teaching earlier when the disciples asked about the sign of the end of the age (Matthew 24:3). He stated that no one could know when this would happen. Neither the angels nor Jesus knew the answer to the question! (verse 36, with Mark 13:32).

Interestingly, Luke did not include Jesus’ answer to the “when” question in his Gospel accounts (17:22-37 or 21:5-36). Rather, he held off describing what was apparently Jesus’ teaching until this place in Acts. Jesus’ reply to the “when” question underscores a great lesson for all Christians. We should not be concerned about when “the end” might come, for there is no way for us to know. We cannot search the Scriptures to find the answer because God is keeping that knowledge to himself.

On the other hand, Jesus was not denying that some day there would be a restoration of Israel. In fact, the entire world is to be renewed. But God’s purpose for Israel and the world in a political sense is not our concern. The apostles and evangelists were simply to proclaim the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. Whether the news was accepted was not their concern.

There is probably a reason why Luke discussed the question of the Messiah’s return. By the time he wrote Acts, it must have been clear that the most of the Jews were not responding to the gospel message. (Neither was the Gentile world to any spectacular degree.) The Jews were the chief and continuing opponents of the Christians. The government of Rome had also become the enemy of the church. Terrible tragedies had struck the Jews, perhaps including the destruction of Jerusalem. But “the end” had not come. The church may have been wondering when it would occur. Was it upon the world now?

Luke was saying to the church: Don’t concern yourself with the “when” of it, but continue to live your Christian lives and do the work of God. The church should not speculate about prophecies — we should simply preach the power of the risen Christ to bring salvation to the world.

You are my witnesses (1:8)

The disciples’ task was to witness to Jesus from Jerusalem “to the ends of the earth” (1:8). This mandate to witness is another theme of Acts. [Acts 1:222:323:155:327:5810:394113:3122:152226:16.]  It becomes the programmatic statement for the book as a whole.

The concept of “witness” is so prominent in Acts (the word in its various forms appears some thirty-nine times) that everything else in the book should probably be seen as subsumed under it. [Richard N. Longenecker, “Acts,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9 (ed. Frank E. Gaebelein; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), 256.]

Luke announced this theme (“you will be my witnesses”) at the beginning of Acts as a mandate of the risen Jesus. By doing this, he revealed this to be his main interest in writing the book. Luke tied this programmatic prophecy to his statement in Luke 24:48: “You are witnesses of these things” to all nations. “These things” refers to the preaching of repentance and forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus (verse 47).

To the ends of the earth (1:8)

The message of salvation offered through Christ to all people was to be declared first in Jerusalem. Then it would go throughout Judea and then to Samaria, which was a “near-Jewish” state. Finally, the witness would go throughout the Roman world. F.F. Bruce says,

The geographical terms of verse 8 provide a sort of “Index of Contents” for Acts,…. “In Jerusalem” covers the first seven chapters, “in all Judaea and Samaria” covers 8:1 to 11:18, and the remainder of the book traces the progress of the gospel outside the frontiers of the Holy Land until at last it reaches Rome. [Bruce, 37.]

The expression “to the ends of the earth” needs some clarification (1:8). First, when Jesus gave the apostles this mandate, they probably took it to mean they should witness to the Jews of the Diaspora, scattered throughout the Roman Empire. It’s clear from Acts that it did not occur to them to preach directly to the Gentiles. Not until later, and with some difficulty, did they understand the full extent of Jesus’ international program of salvation.

Second, there is no indication that the apostles preached the word in China, or West Africa, or in the New World. Their work, so far as we know, seems to have been generally limited to the Roman Empire, and perhaps areas adjacent to it (such as Mesopotamia). Then, in what sense did they witness “to the ends of the earth”? It has been suggested that the phrase refers to the city of Rome. That is where Luke ends his book, so there may be something to the idea.

In the Psalms of Solomon, a writing possibly composed by devout Jews in the first century b.c., the expression refers to Rome. [Ps. Sol. 8:15.]  The circumstance described there was the Roman general Pompey attacking the disobedient people of Jerusalem “from the end of the earth,” that is from Rome. To an ancient Jew, Rome seemed to be at the ends of the earth. But to a Greek-speaking person, after a hundred years of being governed by Rome, it would not seem so far away.

The expression “ends of the earth” can also mean “everywhere.” The Greek rhetorician Dio Chrysostom (c. a.d. 40-c.112) was told to go “to the uttermost parts of the earth.” [Dio Chrysostom, Oration 13:9.]  In context, this refers to all places. The phrase “the ends of the earth” occurs in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, in Isaiah 49:6. Paul quoted this verse to demonstrate that his mission was to carry the message of “salvation to the ends of the earth” (13:46-47).

In whatever way the term is defined, it’s clear that Jesus’ mandate had universal scope. The gospel was to be spread far and wide. This is something the band of missionaries learned about only in stages.

Jesus’ ascension (1:9)

After giving his mandate to the apostles to be his witnesses, Jesus ascended from the earth and disappeared into a cloud. The sight of Jesus being enveloped in the cloud is reminiscent of the Shekinah of God. This was the symbol of the glorious divine presence among God’s people in the Old Testament, particularly in the tabernacle. [Exodus 13:2116:1024:1625:840:34-38.]

Luke here gives the fullest New Testament account of Jesus’ ascension. It is mentioned briefly in only two other places (Mark 16:19 [Mark 16:19 is believed by most textual experts to be a later addition. It is not included in the oldest manuscripts.] ; Luke 24:51). Of course, the factof the ascension is implied throughout the New Testament. Christ is frequently described as being at the right hand of God. [Acts 2:333:21John 6:62Ephesians 4:8-101 Thessalonians 1:101 Peter 3:23Hebrews 4:149:24Revelation 5:6.]

The point is that the witnesses and the church knew that Jesus had been exalted as Savior and ruler over the affairs of humanity. He was also the guide of the apostles’ missionary program (Ephesians 1:19-22Philippians 2:9-10).

The activity of preaching rested not on a dead man but on the living presence of an exalted Savior. In short, writes Richard Longenecker, “Luke insists that Christian mission must be based on the ascended and living Lord who directs his church from heaven and who will return to consummate what he has begun.” [Longenecker, 258.]

While Jesus was lifted up and the disciples observed this as a fact, we must remember that God and Christ are not “up there” somewhere. God is “everywhere.” The idea of heaven as the place of God’s abode “above” the earth is a metaphor to describe his transcendent reality. Christ ascending in a cloud showed the disciples that he was being exalted to be in the presence of God in glory.

Jesus to return with clouds (1:10-11)

The disciples were astonished at the sight of Jesus’ rising — “looking intently up into the sky” (1:10). Suddenly, two angelic figures appeared in human form. (See Luke 24:4 for a comparable appearance of angels.) They chided the disciples for standing there, gaping at the sight of their rising Savior. (We no doubt would have been gaping as well!) They informed the disciples that Jesus would “come back in the same way” that they had seen him go up.

This is one of several scattered New Testament references to what is called the Parousia, after the Greek word that means the arrival or presence of someone. The word is used as a technical term for the coming of Christ in glory. Most commonly, the Parousia is known as the Second Coming of Christ at the end of this age. The circumstances of Jesus’ return are most completely described in Matthew’s Gospel (24:3-25:46). [See also Mark 13:3-37Luke 21:7-361 Thessalonians 4:14-172 Thessalonians 1:6-10.]

Acts 1:6-14

Jesus ascends to heaven (1:6-11)

The disciples had much to learn! Although Jesus had taught them about God’s kingdom, their final question to Jesus was about the kingdom — but they asked from a Jewish perspective, leaving the Gentiles out of the picture (verse 6). The disciples’ choice of words indicates that they had forgotten about preaching forgiveness to all nations. Instead, they wanted the Messiah to bring glory and power to the Jewish people living in the land of Israel. This had been the Jewish hope for centuries. But the Jewish nation was not yet ready for the leader God had chosen. They rejected him and killed him, and, as Acts shows, most Jews continued to reject him even after his resurrection.

Moreover, a national kingdom was not the kind of kingdom that Jesus wanted his disciples to preach about. So Jesus did not answer their question. Instead, Jesus reminded them of the promise and the prophecy (verse 8), and told them to wait. He states it clearly: The power from God is the Holy Spirit, and the disciples, who were witnesses of Jesus’ ministry, were to carry the message throughout the world.

Jesus had given them a mission, just as he had done twice before (Luke 9:110:1). They were to be a witness for Jesus — to preach about him, his resurrection, and the fact that repentance and forgiveness can be obtained through him.

But the gospel could not go to all the world while Jesus was physically on earth. As long as he remained, he would be the primary preacher and he would be a geographical focus. Jesus wanted to delegate more responsibility to the disciples. He wanted to enable them to be the teachers. He wanted not just for God to be with them, but in them. After God began to live in the disciples, they would be able to go into all the world with the knowledge that God would always be with them, helping them understand the Scriptures and the mission, helping them through physical difficulties, energizing them in their work.

And, to the astonishment of the disciples, Jesus ascended into heaven. Two angels appeared and informed the disciples that Jesus would return. The angels did not say when he would return. The disciples were simply left with the command to stay in Jerusalem until they received the Holy Spirit.

Christ’s answer focuses our thoughts on other people. Instead of dwelling on the physical things we want, we should focus on the spiritual blessings we have already been given, and we should share them with others. We who have been given the Holy Spirit should share the good news of salvation — that people of all nations can become part of the people of God through faith, repentance, forgiveness and the Holy Spirit. We do not need to worry about when Christ will return. We simply need to be doing the mission he has given his people in the meantime.The disciples’ question and Jesus’ answer continue to be relevant today. Many Christians want physical blessings from God’s kingdom. They eagerly pray for Christ to return in their lifetime so he will solve their problems. However, the spiritual blessings that Christ will bring are much more important than the physical blessings. Despite that, it is easy for us physical beings to focus on our physical needs.

-----------------------------

Restore the kingdom now? (1:6)

The apostles still thought that Jesus was soon “going to restore the kingdom to Israel” (1:6). They seemed to be viewing the kingdom of God as a restored national Israel. This idea of Israel as the people of God was deeply imbedded in the Hebrew Scriptures. They spoke, for example, of a people God had chosen “out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 7:6).

There was a Jewish expectation that when Israel was restored to national glory, the Holy Spirit would again become active (Jeremiah 31:33Ezekiel 11:19). After all, the prophets of old had promised that in the last days the fortunes of Israel would be restored and God would pour out his Spirit on all people (Joel 2:28-3:1). In Acts 2, Peter quotes Joel’s prophecy and says it is being fulfilled at the time (2:16-17).

The disciples thought that Jesus would restore the glory of Israel. They “had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). They had left everything to follow Jesus, thinking he would give them positions of great authority in that kingdom (Mark 10:35-37Luke 22:24-30). Naturally, they were profoundly shocked and discouraged when Jesus was executed, but they had then been energized by his resurrection. Now, in his post-resurrection appearances he was speaking of the disciples being baptized with the Holy Spirit of power (1:5, 8). Since this was a sign of the new age, it must have awakened in them the hope that the messianic age had come.

We can see something of the disciples’ sense of agitated excitement in the way they ask Jesus about the restoration of Israel. They don’t ask whether this restoration will occur. Rather, they wonder, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (1:6).

Not for you to know (1:7)

Jesus gave the disciples an indefinite answer to the question. He told them it wasn’t for them to know “the times or dates” of any restoration in a national or political sense (1:7). That had been his teaching earlier when the disciples asked about the sign of the end of the age (Matthew 24:3). He stated that no one could know when this would happen. Neither the angels nor Jesus knew the answer to the question! (verse 36, with Mark 13:32).

Interestingly, Luke did not include Jesus’ answer to the “when” question in his Gospel accounts (17:22-37 or 21:5-36). Rather, he held off describing what was apparently Jesus’ teaching until this place in Acts. Jesus’ reply to the “when” question underscores a great lesson for all Christians. We should not be concerned about when “the end” might come, for there is no way for us to know. We cannot search the Scriptures to find the answer because God is keeping that knowledge to himself.

On the other hand, Jesus was not denying that some day there would be a restoration of Israel. In fact, the entire world is to be renewed. But God’s purpose for Israel and the world in a political sense is not our concern. The apostles and evangelists were simply to proclaim the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. Whether the news was accepted was not their concern.

There is probably a reason why Luke discussed the question of the Messiah’s return. By the time he wrote Acts, it must have been clear that the most of the Jews were not responding to the gospel message. (Neither was the Gentile world to any spectacular degree.) The Jews were the chief and continuing opponents of the Christians. The government of Rome had also become the enemy of the church. Terrible tragedies had struck the Jews, perhaps including the destruction of Jerusalem. But “the end” had not come. The church may have been wondering when it would occur. Was it upon the world now?

Luke was saying to the church: Don’t concern yourself with the “when” of it, but continue to live your Christian lives and do the work of God. The church should not speculate about prophecies — we should simply preach the power of the risen Christ to bring salvation to the world.

You are my witnesses (1:8)

The disciples’ task was to witness to Jesus from Jerusalem “to the ends of the earth” (1:8). This mandate to witness is another theme of Acts. [Acts 1:222:323:155:327:5810:394113:3122:152226:16.]  It becomes the programmatic statement for the book as a whole.

The concept of “witness” is so prominent in Acts (the word in its various forms appears some thirty-nine times) that everything else in the book should probably be seen as subsumed under it. [Richard N. Longenecker, “Acts,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9 (ed. Frank E. Gaebelein; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), 256.]

Luke announced this theme (“you will be my witnesses”) at the beginning of Acts as a mandate of the risen Jesus. By doing this, he revealed this to be his main interest in writing the book. Luke tied this programmatic prophecy to his statement in Luke 24:48: “You are witnesses of these things” to all nations. “These things” refers to the preaching of repentance and forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus (verse 47).

To the ends of the earth (1:8)

The message of salvation offered through Christ to all people was to be declared first in Jerusalem. Then it would go throughout Judea and then to Samaria, which was a “near-Jewish” state. Finally, the witness would go throughout the Roman world. F.F. Bruce says,

The geographical terms of verse 8 provide a sort of “Index of Contents” for Acts,…. “In Jerusalem” covers the first seven chapters, “in all Judaea and Samaria” covers 8:1 to 11:18, and the remainder of the book traces the progress of the gospel outside the frontiers of the Holy Land until at last it reaches Rome. [Bruce, 37.]

The expression “to the ends of the earth” needs some clarification (1:8). First, when Jesus gave the apostles this mandate, they probably took it to mean they should witness to the Jews of the Diaspora, scattered throughout the Roman Empire. It’s clear from Acts that it did not occur to them to preach directly to the Gentiles. Not until later, and with some difficulty, did they understand the full extent of Jesus’ international program of salvation.

Second, there is no indication that the apostles preached the word in China, or West Africa, or in the New World. Their work, so far as we know, seems to have been generally limited to the Roman Empire, and perhaps areas adjacent to it (such as Mesopotamia). Then, in what sense did they witness “to the ends of the earth”? It has been suggested that the phrase refers to the city of Rome. That is where Luke ends his book, so there may be something to the idea.

In the Psalms of Solomon, a writing possibly composed by devout Jews in the first century b.c., the expression refers to Rome. [Ps. Sol. 8:15.]  The circumstance described there was the Roman general Pompey attacking the disobedient people of Jerusalem “from the end of the earth,” that is from Rome. To an ancient Jew, Rome seemed to be at the ends of the earth. But to a Greek-speaking person, after a hundred years of being governed by Rome, it would not seem so far away.

The expression “ends of the earth” can also mean “everywhere.” The Greek rhetorician Dio Chrysostom (c. a.d. 40-c.112) was told to go “to the uttermost parts of the earth.” [Dio Chrysostom, Oration 13:9.]  In context, this refers to all places. The phrase “the ends of the earth” occurs in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, in Isaiah 49:6. Paul quoted this verse to demonstrate that his mission was to carry the message of “salvation to the ends of the earth” (13:46-47).

In whatever way the term is defined, it’s clear that Jesus’ mandate had universal scope. The gospel was to be spread far and wide. This is something the band of missionaries learned about only in stages.

Jesus’ ascension (1:9)

After giving his mandate to the apostles to be his witnesses, Jesus ascended from the earth and disappeared into a cloud. The sight of Jesus being enveloped in the cloud is reminiscent of the Shekinah of God. This was the symbol of the glorious divine presence among God’s people in the Old Testament, particularly in the tabernacle. [Exodus 13:2116:1024:1625:840:34-38.]

Luke here gives the fullest New Testament account of Jesus’ ascension. It is mentioned briefly in only two other places (Mark 16:19 [Mark 16:19 is believed by most textual experts to be a later addition. It is not included in the oldest manuscripts.] ; Luke 24:51). Of course, the factof the ascension is implied throughout the New Testament. Christ is frequently described as being at the right hand of God. [Acts 2:333:21John 6:62Ephesians 4:8-101 Thessalonians 1:101 Peter 3:23Hebrews 4:149:24Revelation 5:6.]

The point is that the witnesses and the church knew that Jesus had been exalted as Savior and ruler over the affairs of humanity. He was also the guide of the apostles’ missionary program (Ephesians 1:19-22Philippians 2:9-10).

The activity of preaching rested not on a dead man but on the living presence of an exalted Savior. In short, writes Richard Longenecker, “Luke insists that Christian mission must be based on the ascended and living Lord who directs his church from heaven and who will return to consummate what he has begun.” [Longenecker, 258.]

While Jesus was lifted up and the disciples observed this as a fact, we must remember that God and Christ are not “up there” somewhere. God is “everywhere.” The idea of heaven as the place of God’s abode “above” the earth is a metaphor to describe his transcendent reality. Christ ascending in a cloud showed the disciples that he was being exalted to be in the presence of God in glory.

Jesus to return with clouds (1:10-11)

The disciples were astonished at the sight of Jesus’ rising — “looking intently up into the sky” (1:10). Suddenly, two angelic figures appeared in human form. (See Luke 24:4 for a comparable appearance of angels.) They chided the disciples for standing there, gaping at the sight of their rising Savior. (We no doubt would have been gaping as well!) They informed the disciples that Jesus would “come back in the same way” that they had seen him go up.

This is one of several scattered New Testament references to what is called the Parousia, after the Greek word that means the arrival or presence of someone. The word is used as a technical term for the coming of Christ in glory. Most commonly, the Parousia is known as the Second Coming of Christ at the end of this age. The circumstances of Jesus’ return are most completely described in Matthew’s Gospel (24:3-25:46). [See also Mark 13:3-37Luke 21:7-361 Thessalonians 4:14-172 Thessalonians 1:6-10.]

A Sabbath day’s walk (1:12)

After this extraordinary experience of watching Jesus’ ascension, the apostolic band returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. Luke described the distance between the two places as a “Sabbath’s day walk from the city” (1:12). This was the extent to which a pious Jew was allowed to travel on the Sabbath. The Mishnah, an early 3rd-century compendium of rabbinic regulations, tells us that Sabbath travel was limited to 2,000 cubits. [Mishnah, Sotah 5:3.]  This is about a kilometer, or two-thirds of a mile, although there is some question on the exact measurement of a cubit. Estimates from one half to three quarters of a mile are given for the length of a “Sabbath’s day walk.”

Luke’s use of this strictly Jewish idiom shows his intimate knowledge of local customs. It suggests that Luke received his information about Jesus’ ascension from Jerusalem-area sources. His information could have come from one of the apostles, or from someone who wrote down what the apostles had said about the ascension.

The upstairs room (1:13)

Upon returning to Jerusalem the disciples entered a house and “went upstairs to the room where they were staying” (1:13). This upper room [In ancient architecture, where interior walls were often made of stones, the largest room in a building was almost always on the top floor. If it were on the bottom floor, the interior walls on the floor above would place too much weight on the ceiling timbers.]  may have been a well-known place to early Christians. Perhaps it was the place where Jesus and his disciples kept the Passover before his crucifixion (Mark 14:12-16). (Mark uses a different Greek word for “room.”) Some commentators speculate this could also have been the same room where Jesus appeared to some of his disciples after his resurrection (Luke 24:33-43John 20:1926). Others infer that this room was in the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark. A house church was later located in the home of Mark’s mother (12:12).

Of course, none of these ideas can be proven. However, it is interesting to note that this is one of several times in Acts that Luke mentions specific locations in which the social life of the church was centered. Not only is it interesting local color, it is again evidence that Luke had done some solid research before writing Acts.

The apostolic group (1:13-15)

Luke next describes the people who met or stayed in the upper room. This was the primary nucleus of people who had been witnesses to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Luke had already listed the names of the Twelve in his Gospel (Luke 6:14-16), whom he said Jesus designated as apostles (verse 13). He lists their names again (Acts 1:13), but omits Judas Iscariot, who had died. Luke moved John from fourth position to second, perhaps because only he and Peter have any active role in Acts.

The Eleven were central witnesses to Jesus’ death and resurrection. In both his Gospel and Acts, Luke limited the title “apostle” to Twelve disciples. On only one occasion did he call anyone else an apostle (Barnabas and Paul), and in an indirect way (see 14:4, 14).

Luke also mentioned the names of several others besides the Eleven who were meeting together. The group included some women, one of whom was Mary the mother of Jesus. “The women” (1:14) were those who followed Jesus during his ministry and death (Luke 8:2-323:49; and 23:55-24:10). No doubt Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James were part of the female contingent, whom Luke mentioned in his Gospel (24:10). But this is the last time that Luke mentioned the women or the mother of Jesus, who presumably lived with the apostle John and his family (John 19:26-27).

The brothers of Jesus were also part of the apostolic group. The reference to Jesus’ brothers is interesting because of their apparently abrupt change in attitude toward Jesus. During his ministry they thought he was crazy, or even demon-possessed (Mark 3:21-35John 7:2-10). What changed their minds? The answer may be found in Paul’s writings. Paul recounted an appearance of the risen Christ to James (1 Corinthians 15:7) that Luke doesn’t mention. This would have happened soon after the resurrection, most probably during the 40 days of Jesus’ appearances. Presumably, the other brothers, Joses (or Joseph), Judas (or Jude), and Simon (Matthew 13:55-56Mark 6:3) came to believe in Jesus through similar circumstances.

James is important to Luke’s story, as this half-brother of Jesus would soon occupy a position of leadership in the Jerusalem church (12:17; 15:13-21; 21:18). It appears that the other half-brothers continued to have influence in the apostolic church as well (1 Corinthians 9:5). The Jude who wrote the epistle identified himself as the brother of James. He is traditionally understood to be the half-brother of Jesus called Judas, or Jude.


Acts 1:15-26

Another apostle is chosen

The apostles returned to Jerusalem and devoted themselves to prayer. The disciples numbered about 120, including Jesus’ mother and brothers. Peter, acting as leader of the group, said that someone should be chosen to replace Judas Iscariot, who was dead. Peter acted as an authoritative interpreter of Scripture, observing that Psalm 69:25 had predicted Judas’ death, and Psalm 109:8 predicted that someone else would be chosen for his position of leadership.

Why was it important that there be 12 apostles rather than 11? The number 12 symbolically represents the people of God. The 12 apostles were leaders of the “nation” God was forming from those who had faith in Jesus.

What were the essential qualities of an apostle? He had to have been a disciple of Jesus throughout his ministry — from the beginning to the end (verses 21-22). Two men matched that description, so the group prayed and cast lots to see which man should be numbered with the apostles and become an appointed witness of Jesus’ resurrection. (Although many people had seen the resurrected Jesus and could be witnesses to his resurrection, it seems that the group of 12 apostles formed a group of official witnesses.)

Choosing a twelfth member of this core group of witnesses implies acceptance of Jesus’ commission to be his witnesses in the new situation following his death and resurrection. This is an act of faith in Jesus and a first step in obedience to his new call. (Robert Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, part 2: Acts, page 21)

Matthias was chosen — but Luke tells us nothing more about him. He simply disappears from the story as suddenly as he appeared. So why did Luke tell us the story? It was not for Matthias’ sake. Rather, it emphasizes the number 12 and the disciples’ responsibility to witness.

The story also forms an interesting contrast in how to select leaders. In Acts 6, leaders are chosen who are “full of the Spirit and wisdom” and “full of faith” (6:3, 5). But in Acts 1, the apostles look to external characteristics and are unable to make a final decision. They resort to the Old Testament practice of casting lots and asking God to make the decision for them. It is only after they receive the Holy Spirit, the presence of God in them, that they are able to discern who is “full of the Spirit.” Intentionally or not, life in the old covenant is contrasted with life in the Spirit.

See below for a longer study of chapter 1.

Author: Michael Morrison, 1994, 2012

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According to Luke, there were about 120 believers who met together in Jerusalem before the day of Pentecost (1:15). [His use of “about” here and elsewhere in Acts tells us he was dealing with real numbers, not symbolic numbers. See Acts 2:414:45:73610:313:18,2019:734.]  Among the 120 must have been the disciple Cleopas and his companion, to whom Christ appeared on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Luke also mentioned two other disciples, Justus and Matthias (1:23). They must have been members of the group of 120 as well.

Jewish law required that there be 120 males before a synagogue could have its own council. Only then could a congregation elect members to its own ruling body. This may have been Luke’s implied claim that the Christian disciples formed a legitimate and legal community within Judaism. (The importance of this will become clear as we study Acts.)

There was an exception to the Jewish stipulation. In the church, women were counted as part of the legal community, and Luke later mentioned additional women in the church (5:14; 8:3, 12; 9:2; 12:12; 16:33; 17:4, 12; 22:4). At its very beginning, the community of believers was one that broke restrictive social barriers. It exemplified what Paul said: In Christ there is neither male nor female (Galatians 3:28).

This group of 120 was only part of a still larger contingent of believers. Paul wrote that on one occasion after his resurrection, Jesus appeared to “more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time” (1 Corinthians 15:6), and most of them were still alive when Paul wrote, some two decades later. This suggests a larger pre-Pentecost nucleus in the church than the 120 people meeting in Jerusalem. Commentators speculate that most of these other believers were in Galilee, with the number “about a hundred and twenty” (1:15) referring only to those in Jerusalem.

Since Luke was not concerned with the church or evangelism in Galilee, it is easy to forget that there were also many disciples in that area. Luke mentions that there were churches in Galilee, but he does not give us any details, and he doesn’t describe any missionary activity in the area (9:31).

Constantly in prayer (1:14)

The group of 120 in Galilee was said to be “joined together constantly in prayer” (1:14). Besides waiting for spiritual empowerment, the only other activity the witnesses undertook until Pentecost was to worship God.

In Acts, Luke often mentioned prayer as one of his sub-themes. His point was that the people of God do not rush out in frantic human activity — they look to the leading of the Holy Spirit, and they seek that leadership through prayer. Often, such prayer results in a powerful response from God. [Acts 1:24-264:319:4010:193112:51222:1027:23-25.]  Prayer is a key to the forward motion of God’s purpose.

The death of Judas (1:16-19)

Luke next recounts a situation in which the disciples sought Christ’s leadership through prayer. It had to do with an important matter for the church and its gospel-preaching initiatives. The situation that the disciples felt needed to be resolved was finding a replacement for Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus. Luke took considerable space to tell the story. It was also the only incident he described between Jesus’ ascension and the events of Pentecost day. He apparently thought the episode was important.

Peter described Judas’ betrayal of Christ and his gruesome death. Such details remind us that the church is never perfect. From the beginning, there was a traitor in the ranks of the disciples. But even more ironic was that Peter, the leader of the church who rose to condemn Judas, was himself tainted. William Willimon reminds us that the first speech given after Jesus’ resurrection

is made by the one who also fled in the darkness and loudly denied his Lord when confronted by the maid (Luke 22:56-62). Infidelity first occurs among those who presume to lead…. No scorn for later despisers of the gospel, no judgment upon later infidels, can match the sober, gruesomely detailed picture of the end of Judas or the irony that the one who speaks of Judas did himself deny and curse his own Master. The church meets no failure or deceit in the world that it has not first encountered in itself — even among those who founded and led the very first congregation. [William Willimon, Acts (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1988), 25.]

We should also understand that what Peter said here was only a summary, as are all the speeches in Acts. We are not reading word-for-word accounts of the speeches. They were not taken down in short-hand or recorded for posterity. And at least some of the speeches were probably spoken in Aramaic, the common tongue of this region. Luke wrote in Greek to a later community of believers in other areas, to people who did not know Aramaic.

In Acts 1, for example, Peter spoke as though he were quoting from the Greek version of the Old Testament. He even translated the Aramaic “Akeldama,” explaining it meant Field of Blood (1:19). Presumably, the original disciples were quite aware of the meaning of the word “Akeldama” and the circumstances surrounding the death of Judas. They needed no explanation or translation. Luke added these for the benefit of his Greek readers, who did not know the original circumstances.

The point is we shouldn’t particularly concern ourselves with whether Peter, or the other speakers in Acts, spoke their lines in the exact words Luke put in their mouths. Luke is giving us the main idea of each speech in a paraphrased form.

We should also explain that Acts contains many unresolved questions of a historical and technical nature. There is, for example, the question of how Judas died. Did he hang himself as Matthew indicated (27:5)? Or did he die as Acts described it — because “he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out” (1:18)? This difference has intrigued commentators for centuries. It is considered, as one commentary expresses it, to be “the most intractable contradiction in the New Testament.” [Longenecker, 263.]

It is possible that both Matthew and Acts are correct. Judas may have tried to hang himself, but the rope broke, the knot slipped or the branch may have broken. He then could have fallen, perhaps onto jagged rocks below, which punctured his body. Or Judas died by hanging himself. But later his decomposing and swollen body fell (due to one of the factors mentioned above). The “bursting open” would have occurred when he hit the ground. We may never know. The differences in the accounts may be explained by each author’s intent. Matthew may have been content to simply report Judas’ death. Luke wanted to stress the gruesome and tragic end of someone who had sold out his Savior, and his own opportunity to be among the Twelve.

The point is that Luke’s account is terse at many points. We do not have enough information to resolve what appear to be a number of difficulties. We should not assume, however, that Luke was wrong or that he had contradicted himself or others. We do not have enough information to conclude that.

Why Judas was replaced (1:20)

The disciples felt it was important that the number of apostles be restored to its original number of twelve. Thus, a replacement had to be found for Judas. This became the first official action of the embryonic Christian community. Peter’s speech is set off by two forms of the Greek word dei, which means “it is necessary” (1:16, 21). It was necessary for someone like Judas to be a betrayer in order to fulfill prophecy (1:16) and it was necessary to choose a replacement for him (1:21). Thus, both acts — the defection as well as the replacement of Judas — were divine necessities. And both were foretold in what Luke defined as Scripture.

In his speech, Peter cited two verses from the book of Psalms (69:25 and 109:8) to demonstrate this point (1:20). Peter referred to these verses as “the Scripture.” He said they had their origin in “the Holy Spirit” as the Spirit “spoke long ago through David concerning Judas” (1:16). Thus, Peter drew attention to the divine authorship of Scripture. David was merely a mouthpiece for God. Luke showed that both Peter (3:18, 21; 4:25) and Paul believed that the Scriptures were God-breathed (28:25).

Luke also showed that while Scripture was divinely inspired, the apostles had the spiritual wisdom and authority to use it creatively. We can see this in Peter’s handling of the Old Testament. Peter quoted Psalm 69:25 in the following way, saying it referred to Judas: “May his place be deserted…” (1:20). But the reading was an adapted form of the original, and it came from the Greek version, not the Hebrew. In the Hebrew version, David was referring to his enemies (plural), saying: “May their place be deserted, let there be no one to dwell in their tents.” Thus, “their” in the original became “his” in Acts. What originally referred to “tents” became “place” in the sense of office or position.

What had occurred was the following. The disciples had concluded that a replacement for Judas had to be made to preserve the group of the Twelve. Having so understood, they found a confirmation in two texts from the Psalms. But even here, they had to adapt the wording to fit the new circumstance. David Williams anticipates our reaction by saying,

Such adaptation, whether it be Peter’s or Luke’s, may strike us as taking undue liberties with the text. But it was believed that all Scripture pointed to Christ or to the events attending his coming and that it was legitimate, therefore, to draw out the meaning in this way. Thus the psalmist’s imprecation against his enemies became a prophecy of Judas’ desertion. [Williams, 32.]

The apostles freely “proof-texted” Hebrew scriptural material because Jesus had explained that it pointed to him and his work. Luke made an issue of this in the final chapter of his Gospel (24:25-27, 44). Jesus must have explained Psalm 69 as being a block of scripture that referred to his work. Parts of it were regularly applied to Jesus by the New Testament church. We find Psalm 69 used in John’s (John 2:1715:25) and Paul’s writings (Romans 15:311:9-10) to refer to Jesus.

We might wonder why the apostles were so sure that a replacement had to be made for Judas. This question arises since the risen Christ did not seem to give them explicit instructions on the matter. Jesus had told the apostles that they would “sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28Luke 22:30). Since Judas had defected, it would have seemed necessary that a replacement was needed to bring up the number of apostles to the full complement of 12. This was important because the church saw itself as God’s method of re-forming his people. The church had inherited the mission of ancient Israel to bring the knowledge of God to its own people, as well as to the nations (Deuteronomy 4:5-8). Thus, it needed 12 leaders to take the gospel message to the scattered Jews, constituted as the 12 tribes (Acts 26:7James 1:1).

There was also a cultural reason for having 12 foundational leaders. It had to do with the fact that the church was born, operated and continued to live within the Jewish community for many decades. The church presented itself to the Jewish nation as the culmination of Israel’s hope. It was the spiritual remnant of Judaism that had recognized and accepted Israel’s Messiah. For any such people there was an organizational and symbolic requirement surrounding the number 12. Richard Longenecker explains it:

The “remnant theology” of Late Judaism made it mandatory that any group that presented itself as “the righteous remnant” of the nation, and had the responsibility of calling the nation to repentance and preparing it for God’s glory, must represent itself as the true Israel, not only in its proclamation, but also in its symbolism. [Longenecker, 264.]

As a parallel to the 12 tribes of Israel, such a group would need to have 12 leaders guiding the community. That this was a pervasive expectation is shown by the fact that the Qumran disciples had a quorum of 12 spiritual leaders.

Qualifications for an apostle (1:21-22)

To head the Jewish Christian community as an apostle, a leader had to have some specific qualifications. He had to have been associated with the band of disciples from the time of John the Baptist to Jesus’ ascension (1:22). This person would have known the details of Jesus’ message because he had heard it personally from him. Secondly, this person must have been a witness to the resurrected Christ, so he could guarantee that it actually happened.

“Apostle” was not an ecclesiastical title to be given freely to anyone who accepted the faith or even spread the message of the gospel. It was based on special qualifications necessary for a unique job — the original preaching of Jesus as resurrected Lord and Savior. In short, says William Willimon, “The apostolic circle is drawn only from eyewitnesses who can give a reliable account of the Jesus-event.” [Willimon, 24.]

Others could preach and teach the gospel message, but they were not part of the special group of apostles called the Twelve. From this, we see that there is no need for an office of apostolic succession. The task of the Twelve was unique, as was their number. The reason Judas had to be replaced was that he defected, not that he died. This is shown by the fact that when James the son of Zebedee was executed some two decades after Jesus’ resurrection, the church did not replace him with another person chosen as apostle.

Commentaries on Acts of the Apostles

The apostle Paul was a special case. He was not part of the group of disciples who were with Jesus throughout his ministry. Nor did he see the resurrected Christ in the 40 days after his resurrection. However, Paul did list himself as one to whom Jesus appeared (1 Corinthians 15:8). Though he may have been “the least of the apostles,” he was one of them (verse 9). Paul frequently referred to his apostleship in his letters (Romans 11:131 Corinthians 9:115:9Galatians 1:1). But Paul came later to the faith and apostleship, as “one abnormally born” (1 Corinthians 15:8). He was an apostle, but not one of the Twelve. His insistence on equality with the Twelve came neither in opposition to them nor on any need to be included within their number.

Matthias chosen by lot (1:23-26)

Paul was not the person who replaced Judas. Two other disciples had the qualifications to be an apostle, Joseph Barsabbas (Justus) and Matthias, and they were proposed by the 120 for the vacated office. Only one could be chosen. It was not enough simply to have the right qualifications. One had to be chosen by the Lord as well. After all, it had been Jesus who had appointed the original Twelve. Thus, the disciples now prayed, asking the Lord to make the selection (1:25). Then they “cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias” (1:26).

The practice of casting lots seems strange to us, more like playing dice or gambling. Nevertheless, the practice of casting lots to determine God’s choice was traditional in Israel. [Some examples where lots were used: Leviticus 16:8Numbers 26:5533:54Joshua 14:219:1-40Judges 20:9Proverbs 18:18Isaiah 14:41Micah 2:5Jonah 1:7-8.]  The practice is illustrated by Proverbs 16:33: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” It was a common practice in that culture to cast lots in order to determine a course of action (John 19:24). Even the priestly duties in the temple were settled in this manner (Luke 1:9). Thus, Peter and the rest were acting like typical Jews of the time.

However, we should note that there is no further New Testament example of the use of lots to determine God’s will or direction. Thereafter, the Holy Spirit directly leads the church to the proper course of action. Also, we should focus on who used lots in this case, and to determine what. First, it was not individual Christians but the apostles who cast the lots. And the lots were used to determine a course for the church. They were not used to determine what individual disciples were to do in their private lives. Acts does not teach Christians to use lots to determine the decisions they need to take in their everyday lives.

The precise method by which lots were cast is unknown. Perhaps two stones with names (or designations of persons or courses of action) were shaken together in a container, until one dropped out. Whatever the method, the disciples cast lots and in this way Matthias was designated as the replacement for Judas (1:26). The church then waited for the day of Pentecost.

Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012


Acts 2:1-11

The Day of Pentecost (2:1)

The day called “Pentecost” is named after the Greek word pentekostos, which means “fiftieth.” It was the only Old Testament festival determined by counting. On the day after the Sabbath after Passover, the ancient Israelites selected a sheaf of the first grain that had been harvested in the spring. This grain became an offering, and the priest waved it “before the Lord” (Leviticus 23:11-12). Pentecost was observed in ancient Israel on the 50th day after this (verse 15). Since seven weeks elapsed between the day of the first grain offering and the beginning of Pentecost, this holy day was sometimes called the Feast of Weeks. [Exodus 34:22Leviticus 23:15Numbers 28:26Deuteronomy 16:9-12.]

The grain was harvested after the token of the first gleaning of the grain was given as an offering. Since the counting of Pentecost was tied to this event and it came at the end of the spring grain harvest, Pentecost was sometimes called the Feast of the Harvest and Day of First Fruits (Exodus 23:16Numbers 28:26).

Judaism came to regard Pentecost as the anniversary of the giving of the old covenant and law at Mount Sinai (Exodus 20–24). It is not surprising, then, that Pentecost would have a symbolic meaning for the church. It was the day when God once again manifested himself in a unique way, signaling a new relationship between God and his people. As William Neil summarizes it:

Pentecost had also come to signify for Jews the commemoration of the giving of the Law at Sinai fifty days after the Exodus Passover. For Luke this, too, would be seen as having a Christian fulfilment in the giving of the Spirit fifty days after the Christian Exodus Passover, the Crucifixion and Resurrection. [E. William Neil, The Acts of the Apostles,The New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), page 72).]

The Spirit coming in human minds was a kind of “second giving of the law”; the Spirit replaced the law as the guide for God’s people. It was, in Paul’s expression, “the law of the Spirit who gives life,” which came through the new righteousness that is in Christ (Romans 8:1-2). The Spirit-filled church made possible by Pentecost existed in some continuity with Israel. But there was a distinction as well between the age of Torah (law) and the age of Spirit, between old and new Israel. The law had no power to bring anyone into true communion with God, because it could not be followed in faith, being “weakened by the flesh” (verse 3). A new covenant was required, in which “the Spirit of Christ” (verse 9) was made available to sinning humans.

In the Pentecost experience, the Spirit becomes, in Paul’s words, “the righteousness of God has been made known…apart from the law…to which the Law and Prophets testify” (Romans 3:21). The Holy Spirit is given by God as a gift of faith to those who believe in Jesus Christ (verse 22). This makes it possible for humans to experience oneness with God through the connecting link of spiritual love. As Paul wrote, “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5).

The old Jewish faith had been Torah- or law-centered, modeled after the requirements of the Mosaic covenant. The new faith was Christ-centered and Spirit-directed — with a new covenant of the Spirit. Pentecost, as the festival of first-fruits, would be an appropriate occasion for the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. On this day, the “first-fruits” of disciples would be transformed by the Spirit as a token or representative offering, giving evidence that one day all the nations would seek God, and his truth would cover the earth (Isaiah 2:2-311:9).

A sound like a violent wind (2:2)

On that extraordinary first New Testament Pentecost, the disciples were gathered in “one place” (2:2). Some think they were in the temple. The disciples were frequently at the temple during these days, praising God (Luke 24:53), and this would certainly be a good place to attract a large crowd. However, there is no other indication that the disciples were in the temple. The place may have been the same upper room where the disciples met together, or some other location (Acts 1:13). Wherever it was that the disciples were gathered, they began to experience powerful miracles.

First was the sound of a hurricane-like wind (Greek, pneuma) (2:3). Both the Hebrew word ruach and the Greek pneuma can mean either wind or spirit (the context determines this). The wind was a physical manifestation of the presence of the Holy Spirit. The wind symbolized the Spirit of God, even as did the dove that alighted on Christ at his baptism (John 1:323:8). The sound of a strong wind is also reminiscent of Old Testament theophanies in which God manifested himself (Ezekiel 13:13). The audience on Pentecost morning probably readily connected the sound of the wind to the thunder and trumpet sounds that accompanied God’s presence in the giving of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:18). The loud sound of this wind also had a practical result: It attracted God-fearing Jews who were curious as to what was happening.

Tongues of fire (2:3)

The Jews were doubly awed by a second sign that reaffirmed the presence of the Holy Spirit. “They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them” (2:3). They appeared to be individual “tongues,” not that each tongue was divided or forked. Fire was another symbol of the divine presence. Yahweh appeared to Moses in flames coming from a bush (Exodus 3:2-5). Fire was a frequent feature of Old Testament theophanies, especially those surrounding the Exodus and the giving of the law. [Exodus 13:21-2214:2419:1824:17Deuteronomy 4:1224335:410:4.]

John the Baptist had spoken of the Messiah carrying out a baptism of the Holy Spirit (hence, “wind”) and fire (Luke 3:16). For the disciples as well, these signs were instructive. They understood that Jesus Christ was bringing to fruition something he had promised (Luke 24:49Acts 1:4-58).

Filled with the Holy Spirit (2:4)

These two signs — the wind and fire — were the outward demonstration of what was happening inside the disciples. “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit” (2:4). The church — the Israel of the Spirit — was born through the Holy Spirit, and the disciples were spiritually transformed. All Christians continue to participate in the internal transformation that Pentecost symbolizes. We are baptized with the Holy Spirit upon conversion. [Acts 2:389:1711:1719:2Romans 8:91 Corinthians 12:13Galatians 3:2Ephesians 1:13Titus 3:5Hebrews 6:41 John 3:24.]

Speak in various languages (2:4, 6-12)

On that first Pentecost a third manifestation of the Spirit’s presence occurred. The disciples began to speak in other languages (“tongues”), “as the Spirit enabled them” (2:4). Simple Galileans appeared to have sudden skill in most of the languages spoken in that region of the world. The supernatural aspect of this was not lost on the hearers, who were “utterly amazed” (2:7). More than this, each person in the crowd heard the disciples speaking in his own nativelanguage (2:8). The Greek literally means, “We are hearing in our own language in which we were born.” The various local languages of these Jews’ original homelands were being spoken.

But why speak in local languages? Many Jews spoke Aramaic, especially if they had settled in Judea. But even if they were from the Dispersion, they probably spoke the one language almost everyone could speak — Greek. Luke’s account makes it clear that the “tongues” were real languages, and they could be understood. What the listeners needed was not an interpretation of the words, but an explanation of the sound of wind, the fire, and why various languages were being spoken by ordinary Galileans.

The basic purpose of the miracle of languages was not simply to communicate. Greek would have been sufficient for that purpose. The miracles, including the speaking in languages, were meant to get the attention of the crowd and have them wonder what was happening. They certainly accomplished that. As the perplexed Jews themselves asked, “What does this mean?” (2:12).

Jews from every nation (2:5, 8-11)

Before Peter explains the events of the day, let us look at the international flavor of the crowd that had gathered. Luke tells us there were “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” staying in Jerusalem (2:5). Among the crowd there were also converts or “proselytes” from paganism to Judaism (2:11). The multitude was made up of devout Jews and proselytes, who were in Jerusalem to worship God during the festival of Pentecost.

One authority estimated that over 100,000 people attended Passover in Jesus’ day. Josephus wrote of the large crowds in Jerusalem for this feast. [Josephus, Antiquities 14:337; 17:254; Wars 1:253; 2:42-43.]  Jews would come to the city from throughout the Roman Empire, and from eastern kingdoms. The number of visitors at Pentecost was probably smaller, although still substantial. Philo (20 B.C.–A.D. 50), a Jewish philosopher from Egypt who lived at the same time as Jesus and Paul, said that there were “vast numbers of Jews scattered over every city of Asia and Syria.” [Philo, Embassy to Gaius 245.]  He claimed that there were about a million Jews in Egypt, though historians think his figure is inflated. But no one doubts that the Jewish population of Alexandria was large. [Philo, Flaccus 43, 55.]

Luke’s list of countries from which Jews had come is interesting. Why only 15 countries, why those in particular, and why the order he listed them in? The answers are not clear. But some things about the list can be inferred. Luke’s list begins with three countries east of the Roman Empire — Parthia, Media and Elam, in the area of modern Iran. Luke then moves westward to Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and Judea. He then mentions various provinces in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) — Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia. Next, Luke skips to North Africa — to Egypt, Libya and Cyrene.

Luke also mentions “visitors from Rome,” which included Jews and converts (2:11). This may have something to do with Luke’s desire to show the gospel message penetrating Rome, capital of the Empire. Some of these visitors who were in Jerusalem on Pentecost may have returned to form the nucleus of the church in Rome. As we shall see, the gospel message reached Rome years before Paul did. Rome had a large Jewish population. One scholar estimated it at about 40,000, though there is no way to be sure. The spread of Christian teaching in the synagogues of Rome by the “visitors” may have led to riots, perhaps about a.d. 50. This may be what caused the Roman emperor Claudius (a.d. 41-54) to issue an edict calling for the expulsion of all Jews from Rome (Acts 18:2).

After mentioning the Roman Jews, Luke ends his list with references to people from the Mediterranean island of Crete, and then Arabs. It has been called an odd list with a number of countries given in a strange order. We can infer that this list was meant to indicate that people from all over the Roman world, and parts east, were at Jerusalem. If these people were pilgrims and returned to their native lands, they would have told people about the Pentecost event far and wide.

The appearance of Judea — and its location in the list — is especially odd (2:9). As one commentator points out, this “involves the curious anomaly of inhabitants of Judea being amazed to hear the apostles speak in their own language.” [Longenecker, 273.]  A number of solutions have been offered. One is that Judea as the land of the Jews was prophetically held to stretch from the Euphrates River to the Egyptian border. That is, it would represent the territory once controlled by Kings David and Solomon. This would explain Judea’s place in the list and why Syria is not mentioned. Such “Judeans” would have spoken a number of local dialects in a vast territory. However, it is unlikely that Luke’s readers would have this in mind.

There is also a question as to whether these Jews were pilgrims or had moved to live in Jerusalem. Some scholars see these Jews as pilgrims who had traveled to Jerusalem for the Pentecost festival. However, other scholars say they were permanent residents of Jerusalem. They had returned to the home country, much as Jews in modern times have returned to Israel. Longenecker writes,

Contrary to many who have assumed that the Jews mentioned here were pilgrims to Jerusalem coming for the Pentecost festival, it is more probable that they were residents of Jerusalem who had returned from the Diaspora lands…at some earlier time to settle down in the homeland. [Ibid., 272.]

The existence of a permanent mixed Jewish population in Jerusalem is supported by Acts 6:9. Also, the contrast between “visitors from Rome” (2:10) and those staying or “dwelling” in Jerusalem strengthens the point that most of those in the list had become permanent residents of Jerusalem. Whatever the situation, Luke’s point is clear. The miraculous coming of the Holy Spirit was witnessed in Jerusalem by Jews from all over the world. Many of these individuals from far-flung international areas believed the gospel and received the Spirit. They were later scattered because of persecution and “preached the word wherever they went” (8:1, 4).


Acts 2:1-21

The Day of Pentecost (2:1)

The day called “Pentecost” is named after the Greek word pentekostos, which means “fiftieth.” It was the only Old Testament festival determined by counting. On the day after the Sabbath after Passover, the ancient Israelites selected a sheaf of the first grain that had been harvested in the spring. This grain became an offering, and the priest waved it “before the Lord” (Leviticus 23:11-12). Pentecost was observed in ancient Israel on the 50th day after this (verse 15). Since seven weeks elapsed between the day of the first grain offering and the beginning of Pentecost, this holy day was sometimes called the Feast of Weeks. [Exodus 34:22Leviticus 23:15Numbers 28:26Deuteronomy 16:9-12.]

The grain was harvested after the token of the first gleaning of the grain was given as an offering. Since the counting of Pentecost was tied to this event and it came at the end of the spring grain harvest, Pentecost was sometimes called the Feast of the Harvest and Day of First Fruits (Exodus 23:16Numbers 28:26).

Judaism came to regard Pentecost as the anniversary of the giving of the old covenant and law at Mount Sinai (Exodus 20–24). It is not surprising, then, that Pentecost would have a symbolic meaning for the church. It was the day when God once again manifested himself in a unique way, signaling a new relationship between God and his people. As William Neil summarizes it:

Pentecost had also come to signify for Jews the commemoration of the giving of the Law at Sinai fifty days after the Exodus Passover. For Luke this, too, would be seen as having a Christian fulfilment in the giving of the Spirit fifty days after the Christian Exodus Passover, the Crucifixion and Resurrection. [E. William Neil, The Acts of the Apostles,The New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), page 72).]

The Spirit coming in human minds was a kind of “second giving of the law”; the Spirit replaced the law as the guide for God’s people. It was, in Paul’s expression, “the law of the Spirit who gives life,” which came through the new righteousness that is in Christ (Romans 8:1-2). The Spirit-filled church made possible by Pentecost existed in some continuity with Israel. But there was a distinction as well between the age of Torah (law) and the age of Spirit, between old and new Israel. The law had no power to bring anyone into true communion with God, because it could not be followed in faith, being “weakened by the flesh” (verse 3). A new covenant was required, in which “the Spirit of Christ” (verse 9) was made available to sinning humans.

In the Pentecost experience, the Spirit becomes, in Paul’s words, “the righteousness of God has been made known…apart from the law…to which the Law and Prophets testify” (Romans 3:21). The Holy Spirit is given by God as a gift of faith to those who believe in Jesus Christ (verse 22). This makes it possible for humans to experience oneness with God through the connecting link of spiritual love. As Paul wrote, “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5).

The old Jewish faith had been Torah- or law-centered, modeled after the requirements of the Mosaic covenant. The new faith was Christ-centered and Spirit-directed — with a new covenant of the Spirit. Pentecost, as the festival of first-fruits, would be an appropriate occasion for the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. On this day, the “first-fruits” of disciples would be transformed by the Spirit as a token or representative offering, giving evidence that one day all the nations would seek God, and his truth would cover the earth (Isaiah 2:2-311:9).

A sound like a violent wind (2:2)

On that extraordinary first New Testament Pentecost, the disciples were gathered in “one place” (2:2). Some think they were in the temple. The disciples were frequently at the temple during these days, praising God (Luke 24:53), and this would certainly be a good place to attract a large crowd. However, there is no other indication that the disciples were in the temple. The place may have been the same upper room where the disciples met together, or some other location (Acts 1:13). Wherever it was that the disciples were gathered, they began to experience powerful miracles.

First was the sound of a hurricane-like wind (Greek, pneuma) (2:3). Both the Hebrew word ruach and the Greek pneuma can mean either wind or spirit (the context determines this). The wind was a physical manifestation of the presence of the Holy Spirit. The wind symbolized the Spirit of God, even as did the dove that alighted on Christ at his baptism (John 1:323:8). The sound of a strong wind is also reminiscent of Old Testament theophanies in which God manifested himself (Ezekiel 13:13). The audience on Pentecost morning probably readily connected the sound of the wind to the thunder and trumpet sounds that accompanied God’s presence in the giving of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:18). The loud sound of this wind also had a practical result: It attracted God-fearing Jews who were curious as to what was happening.

Tongues of fire (2:3)

The Jews were doubly awed by a second sign that reaffirmed the presence of the Holy Spirit. “They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them” (2:3). They appeared to be individual “tongues,” not that each tongue was divided or forked. Fire was another symbol of the divine presence. Yahweh appeared to Moses in flames coming from a bush (Exodus 3:2-5). Fire was a frequent feature of Old Testament theophanies, especially those surrounding the Exodus and the giving of the law. [Exodus 13:21-2214:2419:1824:17Deuteronomy 4:1224335:410:4.]

John the Baptist had spoken of the Messiah carrying out a baptism of the Holy Spirit (hence, “wind”) and fire (Luke 3:16). For the disciples as well, these signs were instructive. They understood that Jesus Christ was bringing to fruition something he had promised (Luke 24:49Acts 1:4-58).

Filled with the Holy Spirit (2:4)

These two signs — the wind and fire — were the outward demonstration of what was happening inside the disciples. “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit” (2:4). The church — the Israel of the Spirit — was born through the Holy Spirit, and the disciples were spiritually transformed. All Christians continue to participate in the internal transformation that Pentecost symbolizes. We are baptized with the Holy Spirit upon conversion. [Acts 2:389:1711:1719:2Romans 8:91 Corinthians 12:13Galatians 3:2Ephesians 1:13Titus 3:5Hebrews 6:41 John 3:24.]

Speak in various languages (2:4, 6-12)

On that first Pentecost a third manifestation of the Spirit’s presence occurred. The disciples began to speak in other languages (“tongues”), “as the Spirit enabled them” (2:4). Simple Galileans appeared to have sudden skill in most of the languages spoken in that region of the world. The supernatural aspect of this was not lost on the hearers, who were “utterly amazed” (2:7). More than this, each person in the crowd heard the disciples speaking in his own nativelanguage (2:8). The Greek literally means, “We are hearing in our own language in which we were born.” The various local languages of these Jews’ original homelands were being spoken.

But why speak in local languages? Many Jews spoke Aramaic, especially if they had settled in Judea. But even if they were from the Dispersion, they probably spoke the one language almost everyone could speak — Greek. Luke’s account makes it clear that the “tongues” were real languages, and they could be understood. What the listeners needed was not an interpretation of the words, but an explanation of the sound of wind, the fire, and why various languages were being spoken by ordinary Galileans.

The basic purpose of the miracle of languages was not simply to communicate. Greek would have been sufficient for that purpose. The miracles, including the speaking in languages, were meant to get the attention of the crowd and have them wonder what was happening. They certainly accomplished that. As the perplexed Jews themselves asked, “What does this mean?” (2:12).

Jews from every nation (2:5, 8-11)

Before Peter explains the events of the day, let us look at the international flavor of the crowd that had gathered. Luke tells us there were “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” staying in Jerusalem (2:5). Among the crowd there were also converts or “proselytes” from paganism to Judaism (2:11). The multitude was made up of devout Jews and proselytes, who were in Jerusalem to worship God during the festival of Pentecost.

One authority estimated that over 100,000 people attended Passover in Jesus’ day. Josephus wrote of the large crowds in Jerusalem for this feast. [Josephus, Antiquities 14:337; 17:254; Wars 1:253; 2:42-43.]  Jews would come to the city from throughout the Roman Empire, and from eastern kingdoms. The number of visitors at Pentecost was probably smaller, although still substantial. Philo (20 B.C.–A.D. 50), a Jewish philosopher from Egypt who lived at the same time as Jesus and Paul, said that there were “vast numbers of Jews scattered over every city of Asia and Syria.” [Philo, Embassy to Gaius 245.]  He claimed that there were about a million Jews in Egypt, though historians think his figure is inflated. But no one doubts that the Jewish population of Alexandria was large. [Philo, Flaccus 43, 55.]

Luke’s list of countries from which Jews had come is interesting. Why only 15 countries, why those in particular, and why the order he listed them in? The answers are not clear. But some things about the list can be inferred. Luke’s list begins with three countries east of the Roman Empire — Parthia, Media and Elam, in the area of modern Iran. Luke then moves westward to Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and Judea. He then mentions various provinces in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) — Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia. Next, Luke skips to North Africa — to Egypt, Libya and Cyrene.

Luke also mentions “visitors from Rome,” which included Jews and converts (2:11). This may have something to do with Luke’s desire to show the gospel message penetrating Rome, capital of the Empire. Some of these visitors who were in Jerusalem on Pentecost may have returned to form the nucleus of the church in Rome. As we shall see, the gospel message reached Rome years before Paul did. Rome had a large Jewish population. One scholar estimated it at about 40,000, though there is no way to be sure. The spread of Christian teaching in the synagogues of Rome by the “visitors” may have led to riots, perhaps about a.d. 50. This may be what caused the Roman emperor Claudius (a.d. 41-54) to issue an edict calling for the expulsion of all Jews from Rome (Acts 18:2).

After mentioning the Roman Jews, Luke ends his list with references to people from the Mediterranean island of Crete, and then Arabs. It has been called an odd list with a number of countries given in a strange order. We can infer that this list was meant to indicate that people from all over the Roman world, and parts east, were at Jerusalem. If these people were pilgrims and returned to their native lands, they would have told people about the Pentecost event far and wide.

The appearance of Judea — and its location in the list — is especially odd (2:9). As one commentator points out, this “involves the curious anomaly of inhabitants of Judea being amazed to hear the apostles speak in their own language.” [Longenecker, 273.]  A number of solutions have been offered. One is that Judea as the land of the Jews was prophetically held to stretch from the Euphrates River to the Egyptian border. That is, it would represent the territory once controlled by Kings David and Solomon. This would explain Judea’s place in the list and why Syria is not mentioned. Such “Judeans” would have spoken a number of local dialects in a vast territory. However, it is unlikely that Luke’s readers would have this in mind.

There is also a question as to whether these Jews were pilgrims or had moved to live in Jerusalem. Some scholars see these Jews as pilgrims who had traveled to Jerusalem for the Pentecost festival. However, other scholars say they were permanent residents of Jerusalem. They had returned to the home country, much as Jews in modern times have returned to Israel. Longenecker writes,

Contrary to many who have assumed that the Jews mentioned here were pilgrims to Jerusalem coming for the Pentecost festival, it is more probable that they were residents of Jerusalem who had returned from the Diaspora lands…at some earlier time to settle down in the homeland. [Ibid., 272.]

The existence of a permanent mixed Jewish population in Jerusalem is supported by Acts 6:9. Also, the contrast between “visitors from Rome” (2:10) and those staying or “dwelling” in Jerusalem strengthens the point that most of those in the list had become permanent residents of Jerusalem. Whatever the situation, Luke’s point is clear. The miraculous coming of the Holy Spirit was witnessed in Jerusalem by Jews from all over the world. Many of these individuals from far-flung international areas believed the gospel and received the Spirit. They were later scattered because of persecution and “preached the word wherever they went” (8:1, 4).

They are not drunk (2:13-15)

As the disciples rose to speak, it was clear that not everyone in the crowd was impressed by the miracles and signs. Luke tells us, “Some…made fun of them and said, ‘They have had too much wine’” (2:13). So Peter began his speech to the astonished Jews by insisting that the disciples weren’t drunk. It was 9:00 a.m., too early to be drinking, and much too early to be drunk. Those speaking in languages were not filled with wine, but with the Holy Spirit.

Peter’s speech (2:17-39)

Peter explained what the events really meant. His speech takes up much of the remainder of this chapter. He made a powerful and courageous witness to Christ as the promised Messiah. Just a few weeks earlier, this same Peter had denied his Savior with oaths and curses (Matthew 26:7274). “Woman, I don’t know him,” Peter had insisted to a servant girl who recognized him as a disciple (Luke 22:57). Yet now, Peter was the first to shout aloud that he not only knew this man, he was a witness to all that Jesus had said and done. The Holy Spirit had breathed new courage into a once disheartened and discouraged disciple (Luke 24:21).

Peter presents evidence that Jesus is the promised Messiah. He includes references to the Hebrew prophet Joel and a “father” of the nation, King David. In this context, devout Jews would have carefully listened to what Peter had to say about them. Peter appeals to the Hebrew Scriptures as the word of God. He insists that this Pentecost event is a fulfillment of prophecy. Peter also asserts that Jesus is referred to in the Hebrew Scriptures that spoke of a coming Messiah.

Peter also appeals to the audience’s own experience. If these Jews had been in Jerusalem since before Passover — and especially if they lived in the city — they would have known of Jesus’ miraculous works, and especially the circumstances surrounding his death. Finally, Peter appeals to himself and the other apostles as being qualified to give eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ resurrection. After this, Peter exhorted the Jews to repent, literally, to have a change of mind, by accepting Jesus as the promised Messiah.

This was the apostolic message in its most basic form. It was composed of six themes, which are found repeatedly in Peter’s sermons in the first chapters of Acts:

  • The age of fulfillment prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures has come to pass. The kingdom of God is imminent, indeed, is here.
  • The ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus has made all this possible, and is proved from the Scriptures.
  • As a result of his exaltation, Christ is at God’s right hand, as the messianic head of a spiritual Israel.
  • The sign of Christ’s power and guidance is the presence of the Holy Spirit in that new congregation or church of Israel.
  • The consummation of the messianic age is imminent, and will be brought about by Christ’s return.
  • The proper response to this information is repentance and baptism. God forgives sins, gives the Holy Spirit, and makes salvation possible.

Peter’s speeches in Acts were styled and shaped by Luke, who was writing in accordance with the standards of historical writing in his day. But Luke did not invent the speeches out of his own imagination — they reflect the basic elements of the gospel message that Peter and the other apostles and evangelists carried far and wide. What we have in Acts 2 is only a brief synopsis of what must have been said by Peter during this occasion. Even Luke tells us that Peter warned the crowd “with many other words,” words Luke has not given us (2:40).

The prophecy of Joel (2:16-18)

As we look carefully at Peter’s speech, we are surprised at what it says. The first thing we notice is that Luke has used the Septuagint version of the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament in quoting Joel 2:28-32. The Septuagint was a Greek translation that Jewish scholars created in the 3rd century b.c. for the many Jews who could not understand Hebrew. This version (from the Latin, septuaginta, which means 70) is commonly referred to by the Roman numerals for 70, LXX. The number derives from a story that 70 or 72 Jewish scholars did all the work.

The Septuagint is important for several reasons. Rather than any Hebrew version, it was the Bible of the early church.

It was not secondary to any other scripture; it was Scripture. When a New Testament writer allegedly urged his audience to consider that all scripture given by divine “inspiration” is also profitable for doctrine, it was to the LXX not the Hebrew that attention was being called. [Melvin K.H. Peters, “Septuagint,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, volume 5 (ed. David Noel Freedman; New York: Doubleday, 1992; now published by Yale University Press), 1102.]

This is clear from Peter’s citation of the prophet Joel (2:17-21), which agrees in most details with the LXX. However, there are some alterations in the text, and these show us something important about how the church used and regarded the Old Testament. The LXX of Joel 2:28reads, “It shall come to pass afterward, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh.” The Greek of the LXX is meta tauta, or the indefinite “after these things.” However, in Acts the Greek expression has been changed to en tais eschatais hemerais, which means the very specific “in the last days.” Thus, Peter (and/or Luke) has grounded the event of Pentecost at a specific time in history — as part of the end times or last days of God’s redemptive program. The indefinite feel of the old has been made more specific in the new.

For the New Testament writers, the “last days” began with Christ’s appearance on earth and would end with the events of his reappearance and the consummation. Peter clearly regarded Joel’s prophecy as applying to the last days, and he claimed that his hearers were living in those days, when God’s final act of salvation had begun. He was saying to the Jews, in the words of William Barclay, “For generations you have dreamed of the Day of God, the Day when God would break into history. Now, in Jesus, that Day has come.” [Barclay, 25.]

When Peter spoke these words, he probably didn’t realize how many years would pass between Christ’s two appearances. Not until decades later did the passage of time force the apostles and the church to deal with the question of how long it would be (2 Peter 3:3-9Revelation 6:9-11). When Luke wrote, the question of when Christ would return may have been a major issue. Even near the end of his life, Peter thought, “The end of all things is near” (1 Peter 4:7). The book of 2 Peter had to defend the promise of Jesus’ return because so many decades had elapsed since the resurrection without his reappearance (2 Peter 3:3-10).

The first part of Joel’s prophecy that Peter quoted bore directly on the events of Pentecost. Joel had spoken of a time when God said, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people” (2:17). This had happened at Pentecost. The Age of the Spirit had begun.

Wonders in heaven (2:19-20)

In verses 19 and 20 Peter quoted parts of Joel’s prophecy that spoke of the heavenly signs that would accompany the pouring out of God’s Spirit. These signs were to occur “before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord” (2:20). In Peter’s mind all the events between Jesus’ earthly ministry and return were telescoped into a short time. We can infer from other information in the New Testament that he regarded the heavenly wonders to be just around the corner. The darkening of the sun (and perhaps a red moon) on the Passover of Jesus’ death may have reverberated in Peter’s mind (Luke 23:44). Perhaps he (and others) considered those events as harbingers of what Joel spoke about — the coming of the day of the Lord.

Jesus is the Messiah (2:21-24)

With a tone of urgency, Peter ended Joel’s prophecy by asserting that this is a time to recognize the Messiah, and put one’s faith in him. Everyone who would be willing to do so, said Joel, would be saved (2:21).

Up to this point, Peter has argued that the Jews should recognize the miraculous phenomena as manifestations of the Spirit, signaling an end-time age of the Spirit. Peter says that Joel’s prophecy applies to his day, but he has not yet offered an extended argument that Jesus is the Messiah. But now Peter begins to insist that the ministry of Jesus validated him as the Messiah. He addresses his listeners as people of Israel — as those who claim to be God’s people. If they are God’s people, Peter is saying, they will recognize the work of Jesus as having been described in their Scriptures.

We have arrived at Peter’s main theme, the chief focus of the church’s witness: the proclamation of Jesus as Lord and Messiah. In the speeches of Acts, this is usually done by the witness (such as Peter) giving an account of the ministry and death of Jesus. There is usually an assertion that he was unjustly murdered, and he has been raised from the dead. The Old Testament is usually cited to show that what happened to Jesus was what the Scriptures said would happen to the Messiah.


Acts 2:14-32

Peter began his speech to the astonished Jews by insisting that the disciples weren’t drunk. It was 9:00 a.m., too early to be drinking, and much too early to be drunk. Those speaking in languages were not filled with wine, but with the Holy Spirit.

Peter’s speech (2:17-39)

Peter explained what the events really meant. His speech takes up much of the remainder of this chapter. He made a powerful and courageous witness to Christ as the promised Messiah. Just a few weeks earlier, this same Peter had denied his Savior with oaths and curses (Matthew 26:7274). “Woman, I don’t know him,” Peter had insisted to a servant girl who recognized him as a disciple (Luke 22:57). Yet now, Peter was the first to shout aloud that he not only knew this man, he was a witness to all that Jesus had said and done. The Holy Spirit had breathed new courage into a once disheartened and discouraged disciple (Luke 24:21).

Peter presents evidence that Jesus is the promised Messiah. He includes references to the Hebrew prophet Joel and a “father” of the nation, King David. In this context, devout Jews would have carefully listened to what Peter had to say about them. Peter appeals to the Hebrew Scriptures as the word of God. He insists that this Pentecost event is a fulfillment of prophecy. Peter also asserts that Jesus is referred to in the Hebrew Scriptures that spoke of a coming Messiah.

Peter also appeals to the audience’s own experience. If these Jews had been in Jerusalem since before Passover — and especially if they lived in the city — they would have known of Jesus’ miraculous works, and especially the circumstances surrounding his death. Finally, Peter appeals to himself and the other apostles as being qualified to give eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ resurrection. After this, Peter exhorted the Jews to repent, literally, to have a change of mind, by accepting Jesus as the promised Messiah.

This was the apostolic message in its most basic form. It was composed of six themes, which are found repeatedly in Peter’s sermons in the first chapters of Acts:

  • The age of fulfillment prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures has come to pass. The kingdom of God is imminent, indeed, is here.
  • The ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus has made all this possible, and is proved from the Scriptures.
  • As a result of his exaltation, Christ is at God’s right hand, as the messianic head of a spiritual Israel.
  • The sign of Christ’s power and guidance is the presence of the Holy Spirit in that new congregation or church of Israel.
  • The consummation of the messianic age is imminent, and will be brought about by Christ’s return.
  • The proper response to this information is repentance and baptism. God forgives sins, gives the Holy Spirit, and makes salvation possible.

Peter’s speeches in Acts were styled and shaped by Luke, who was writing in accordance with the standards of historical writing in his day. But Luke did not invent the speeches out of his own imagination — they reflect the basic elements of the gospel message that Peter and the other apostles and evangelists carried far and wide. What we have in Acts 2 is only a brief synopsis of what must have been said by Peter during this occasion. Even Luke tells us that Peter warned the crowd “with many other words,” words Luke has not given us (2:40).

The prophecy of Joel (2:16-18)

As we look carefully at Peter’s speech, we are surprised at what it says. The first thing we notice is that Luke has used the Septuagint version of the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament in quoting Joel 2:28-32. The Septuagint was a Greek translation that Jewish scholars created in the 3rd century b.c. for the many Jews who could not understand Hebrew. This version (from the Latin, septuaginta, which means 70) is commonly referred to by the Roman numerals for 70, LXX. The number derives from a story that 70 or 72 Jewish scholars did all the work.

The Septuagint is important for several reasons. Rather than any Hebrew version, it was the Bible of the early church.

It was not secondary to any other scripture; it was Scripture. When a New Testament writer allegedly urged his audience to consider that all scripture given by divine “inspiration” is also profitable for doctrine, it was to the LXX not the Hebrew that attention was being called. [Melvin K.H. Peters, “Septuagint,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, volume 5 (ed. David Noel Freedman; New York: Doubleday, 1992; now published by Yale University Press), 1102.]

This is clear from Peter’s citation of the prophet Joel (2:17-21), which agrees in most details with the LXX. However, there are some alterations in the text, and these show us something important about how the church used and regarded the Old Testament. The LXX of Joel 2:28reads, “It shall come to pass afterward, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh.” The Greek of the LXX is meta tauta, or the indefinite “after these things.” However, in Acts the Greek expression has been changed to en tais eschatais hemerais, which means the very specific “in the last days.” Thus, Peter (and/or Luke) has grounded the event of Pentecost at a specific time in history — as part of the end times or last days of God’s redemptive program. The indefinite feel of the old has been made more specific in the new.

For the New Testament writers, the “last days” began with Christ’s appearance on earth and would end with the events of his reappearance and the consummation. Peter clearly regarded Joel’s prophecy as applying to the last days, and he claimed that his hearers were living in those days, when God’s final act of salvation had begun. He was saying to the Jews, in the words of William Barclay, “For generations you have dreamed of the Day of God, the Day when God would break into history. Now, in Jesus, that Day has come.” [Barclay, 25.]

When Peter spoke these words, he probably didn’t realize how many years would pass between Christ’s two appearances. Not until decades later did the passage of time force the apostles and the church to deal with the question of how long it would be (2 Peter 3:3-9Revelation 6:9-11). When Luke wrote, the question of when Christ would return may have been a major issue. Even near the end of his life, Peter thought, “The end of all things is near” (1 Peter 4:7). The book of 2 Peter had to defend the promise of Jesus’ return because so many decades had elapsed since the resurrection without his reappearance (2 Peter 3:3-10).

The first part of Joel’s prophecy that Peter quoted bore directly on the events of Pentecost. Joel had spoken of a time when God said, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people” (2:17). This had happened at Pentecost. The Age of the Spirit had begun.

Wonders in heaven (2:19-20)

In verses 19 and 20 Peter quoted parts of Joel’s prophecy that spoke of the heavenly signs that would accompany the pouring out of God’s Spirit. These signs were to occur “before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord” (2:20). In Peter’s mind all the events between Jesus’ earthly ministry and return were telescoped into a short time. We can infer from other information in the New Testament that he regarded the heavenly wonders to be just around the corner. The darkening of the sun (and perhaps a red moon) on the Passover of Jesus’ death may have reverberated in Peter’s mind (Luke 23:44). Perhaps he (and others) considered those events as harbingers of what Joel spoke about — the coming of the day of the Lord.

Jesus is the Messiah (2:21-24)

With a tone of urgency, Peter ended Joel’s prophecy by asserting that this is a time to recognize the Messiah, and put one’s faith in him. Everyone who would be willing to do so, said Joel, would be saved (2:21).

Up to this point, Peter has argued that the Jews should recognize the miraculous phenomena as manifestations of the Spirit, signaling an end-time age of the Spirit. Peter says that Joel’s prophecy applies to his day, but he has not yet offered an extended argument that Jesus is the Messiah. But now Peter begins to insist that the ministry of Jesus validated him as the Messiah. He addresses his listeners as people of Israel — as those who claim to be God’s people. If they are God’s people, Peter is saying, they will recognize the work of Jesus as having been described in their Scriptures.

We have arrived at Peter’s main theme, the chief focus of the church’s witness: the proclamation of Jesus as Lord and Messiah. In the speeches of Acts, this is usually done by the witness (such as Peter) giving an account of the ministry and death of Jesus. There is usually an assertion that he was unjustly murdered, and he has been raised from the dead. The Old Testament is usually cited to show that what happened to Jesus was what the Scriptures said would happen to the Messiah.

Here Peter insists that Jesus “was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs” (2:22). These mighty works were evidence that God was working through Jesus among the people. This line of reasoning continues to be an important part of the witness to Jesus as the Messiah.

Peter maintains that what might have appeared to be the weakness of God — Jesus’ crucifixion — took place according to “God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge” (2:23). In Paul’s words, what people might have regarded as weakness turned out to be “the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Peter explains to his listeners that in putting Jesus to death, the Jews actually fulfilled God’s plan. The sufferings and resurrection of Jesus were foretold in the prophetic writings.

The Messiah in Psalm 16 (2:25-33)

Peter then quotes a psalm of David as a proof-text that the Messiah’s resurrection was foretold in Scripture. Peter is building his case on a number of widely shared beliefs. The Jews believed that the psalms were written by David. They saw David as God’s “anointed” king. They saw that God had promised what appeared to be an eternal kingship to David through his descendants. Thus, what was said in the Psalms by David could refer to him or to his descendants — and one descendant in particular, the Messiah. Peter’s citation of Psalm 16:8-11 was an exact quote from the LXX (where it is Psalm 15). But he read it messianically, referring to Christ rather than to David.

Psalm 16 speaks of one who will not “see decay” nor be abandoned to the grave (2:27). This person is always in the presence of God (2:25, 28). Peter asserts that these statements could not apply to David. He stresses what all his listeners knew — that David was dead and buried. His tomb, a landmark in the area, could be seen and touched (2:29). David died (was abandoned to the grave) and his body decomposed. Psalm 16:8-11 must therefore apply to the messianic successor of David, not David himself. But since David was a prophet, it should not be considered a strange thing that he could foresee the future (2:30). [Luke repeatedly notes that the author of the Psalms is a prophet. See Luke 20:41-4224:44Acts 1:1620;4:2513:33-36.]

Peter argued that David’s prophetic words were fulfilled in Jesus, and the apostles were witnesses of that fact. The conclusion was obvious: Jesus is the expected Messiah of Scripture (2:32-33). 


Acts 2:14-41

Peter began his speech to the astonished Jews by insisting that the disciples weren’t drunk. It was 9:00 a.m., too early to be drinking, and much too early to be drunk. Those speaking in languages were not filled with wine, but with the Holy Spirit.

Peter’s speech (2:17-39)

Peter explained what the events really meant. His speech takes up much of the remainder of this chapter. He made a powerful and courageous witness to Christ as the promised Messiah. Just a few weeks earlier, this same Peter had denied his Savior with oaths and curses (Matthew 26:7274). “Woman, I don’t know him,” Peter had insisted to a servant girl who recognized him as a disciple (Luke 22:57). Yet now, Peter was the first to shout aloud that he not only knew this man, he was a witness to all that Jesus had said and done. The Holy Spirit had breathed new courage into a once disheartened and discouraged disciple (Luke 24:21).

Peter presents evidence that Jesus is the promised Messiah. He includes references to the Hebrew prophet Joel and a “father” of the nation, King David. In this context, devout Jews would have carefully listened to what Peter had to say about them. Peter appeals to the Hebrew Scriptures as the word of God. He insists that this Pentecost event is a fulfillment of prophecy. Peter also asserts that Jesus is referred to in the Hebrew Scriptures that spoke of a coming Messiah.

Peter also appeals to the audience’s own experience. If these Jews had been in Jerusalem since before Passover — and especially if they lived in the city — they would have known of Jesus’ miraculous works, and especially the circumstances surrounding his death. Finally, Peter appeals to himself and the other apostles as being qualified to give eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ resurrection. After this, Peter exhorted the Jews to repent, literally, to have a change of mind, by accepting Jesus as the promised Messiah.

This was the apostolic message in its most basic form. It was composed of six themes, which are found repeatedly in Peter’s sermons in the first chapters of Acts:

  • The age of fulfillment prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures has come to pass. The kingdom of God is imminent, indeed, is here.
  • The ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus has made all this possible, and is proved from the Scriptures.
  • As a result of his exaltation, Christ is at God’s right hand, as the messianic head of a spiritual Israel.
  • The sign of Christ’s power and guidance is the presence of the Holy Spirit in that new congregation or church of Israel.
  • The consummation of the messianic age is imminent, and will be brought about by Christ’s return.
  • The proper response to this information is repentance and baptism. God forgives sins, gives the Holy Spirit, and makes salvation possible.

Peter’s speeches in Acts were styled and shaped by Luke, who was writing in accordance with the standards of historical writing in his day. But Luke did not invent the speeches out of his own imagination — they reflect the basic elements of the gospel message that Peter and the other apostles and evangelists carried far and wide. What we have in Acts 2 is only a brief synopsis of what must have been said by Peter during this occasion. Even Luke tells us that Peter warned the crowd “with many other words,” words Luke has not given us (2:40).

The prophecy of Joel (2:16-18)

As we look carefully at Peter’s speech, we are surprised at what it says. The first thing we notice is that Luke has used the Septuagint version of the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament in quoting Joel 2:28-32. The Septuagint was a Greek translation that Jewish scholars created in the 3rd century b.c. for the many Jews who could not understand Hebrew. This version (from the Latin, septuaginta, which means 70) is commonly referred to by the Roman numerals for 70, LXX. The number derives from a story that 70 or 72 Jewish scholars did all the work.

The Septuagint is important for several reasons. Rather than any Hebrew version, it was the Bible of the early church.

It was not secondary to any other scripture; it was Scripture. When a New Testament writer allegedly urged his audience to consider that all scripture given by divine “inspiration” is also profitable for doctrine, it was to the LXX not the Hebrew that attention was being called. [Melvin K.H. Peters, “Septuagint,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, volume 5 (ed. David Noel Freedman; New York: Doubleday, 1992; now published by Yale University Press), 1102.]

This is clear from Peter’s citation of the prophet Joel (2:17-21), which agrees in most details with the LXX. However, there are some alterations in the text, and these show us something important about how the church used and regarded the Old Testament. The LXX of Joel 2:28reads, “It shall come to pass afterward, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh.” The Greek of the LXX is meta tauta, or the indefinite “after these things.” However, in Acts the Greek expression has been changed to en tais eschatais hemerais, which means the very specific “in the last days.” Thus, Peter (and/or Luke) has grounded the event of Pentecost at a specific time in history — as part of the end times or last days of God’s redemptive program. The indefinite feel of the old has been made more specific in the new.

For the New Testament writers, the “last days” began with Christ’s appearance on earth and would end with the events of his reappearance and the consummation. Peter clearly regarded Joel’s prophecy as applying to the last days, and he claimed that his hearers were living in those days, when God’s final act of salvation had begun. He was saying to the Jews, in the words of William Barclay, “For generations you have dreamed of the Day of God, the Day when God would break into history. Now, in Jesus, that Day has come.” [Barclay, 25.]

When Peter spoke these words, he probably didn’t realize how many years would pass between Christ’s two appearances. Not until decades later did the passage of time force the apostles and the church to deal with the question of how long it would be (2 Peter 3:3-9Revelation 6:9-11). When Luke wrote, the question of when Christ would return may have been a major issue. Even near the end of his life, Peter thought, “The end of all things is near” (1 Peter 4:7). The book of 2 Peter had to defend the promise of Jesus’ return because so many decades had elapsed since the resurrection without his reappearance (2 Peter 3:3-10).

The first part of Joel’s prophecy that Peter quoted bore directly on the events of Pentecost. Joel had spoken of a time when God said, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people” (2:17). This had happened at Pentecost. The Age of the Spirit had begun.

Wonders in heaven (2:19-20)

In verses 19 and 20 Peter quoted parts of Joel’s prophecy that spoke of the heavenly signs that would accompany the pouring out of God’s Spirit. These signs were to occur “before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord” (2:20). In Peter’s mind all the events between Jesus’ earthly ministry and return were telescoped into a short time. We can infer from other information in the New Testament that he regarded the heavenly wonders to be just around the corner. The darkening of the sun (and perhaps a red moon) on the Passover of Jesus’ death may have reverberated in Peter’s mind (Luke 23:44). Perhaps he (and others) considered those events as harbingers of what Joel spoke about — the coming of the day of the Lord.

Jesus is the Messiah (2:21-24)

With a tone of urgency, Peter ended Joel’s prophecy by asserting that this is a time to recognize the Messiah, and put one’s faith in him. Everyone who would be willing to do so, said Joel, would be saved (2:21).

Up to this point, Peter has argued that the Jews should recognize the miraculous phenomena as manifestations of the Spirit, signaling an end-time age of the Spirit. Peter says that Joel’s prophecy applies to his day, but he has not yet offered an extended argument that Jesus is the Messiah. But now Peter begins to insist that the ministry of Jesus validated him as the Messiah. He addresses his listeners as people of Israel — as those who claim to be God’s people. If they are God’s people, Peter is saying, they will recognize the work of Jesus as having been described in their Scriptures.

We have arrived at Peter’s main theme, the chief focus of the church’s witness: the proclamation of Jesus as Lord and Messiah. In the speeches of Acts, this is usually done by the witness (such as Peter) giving an account of the ministry and death of Jesus. There is usually an assertion that he was unjustly murdered, and he has been raised from the dead. The Old Testament is usually cited to show that what happened to Jesus was what the Scriptures said would happen to the Messiah.

Here Peter insists that Jesus “was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs” (2:22). These mighty works were evidence that God was working through Jesus among the people. This line of reasoning continues to be an important part of the witness to Jesus as the Messiah.

Peter maintains that what might have appeared to be the weakness of God — Jesus’ crucifixion — took place according to “God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge” (2:23). In Paul’s words, what people might have regarded as weakness turned out to be “the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Peter explains to his listeners that in putting Jesus to death, the Jews actually fulfilled God’s plan. The sufferings and resurrection of Jesus were foretold in the prophetic writings.

The Messiah in Psalm 16 (2:25-33)

Peter then quotes a psalm of David as a proof-text that the Messiah’s resurrection was foretold in Scripture. Peter is building his case on a number of widely shared beliefs. The Jews believed that the psalms were written by David. They saw David as God’s “anointed” king. They saw that God had promised what appeared to be an eternal kingship to David through his descendants. Thus, what was said in the Psalms by David could refer to him or to his descendants — and one descendant in particular, the Messiah. Peter’s citation of Psalm 16:8-11 was an exact quote from the LXX (where it is Psalm 15). But he read it messianically, referring to Christ rather than to David.

Psalm 16 speaks of one who will not “see decay” nor be abandoned to the grave (2:27). This person is always in the presence of God (2:25, 28). Peter asserts that these statements could not apply to David. He stresses what all his listeners knew — that David was dead and buried. His tomb, a landmark in the area, could be seen and touched (2:29). David died (was abandoned to the grave) and his body decomposed. Psalm 16:8-11 must therefore apply to the messianic successor of David, not David himself. But since David was a prophet, it should not be considered a strange thing that he could foresee the future (2:30). [Luke repeatedly notes that the author of the Psalms is a prophet. See Luke 20:41-4224:44Acts 1:1620;4:2513:33-36.]

Peter argued that David’s prophetic words were fulfilled in Jesus, and the apostles were witnesses of that fact. The conclusion was obvious: Jesus is the expected Messiah of Scripture (2:32-33). Peter then referred to what the listeners “now see and hear” — that is, the theophany of Pentecost exhibited in the wind, the fire, and the languages (2:33). What they saw and heard was “proof” that the Holy Spirit was available.

Messianic Psalm 110 (2:34-36)

Peter cited a second proof-text, Psalm 110:1, quoted from the Greek version, where it is Psalm 109. “The Lord said to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet’” (2:34-35). This verse was difficult to understand. Its explanation depended on how one understood who “my Lord” was, the one to whom “the Lord” promised a place at his right hand. This scripture from Psalm 110 had figured in a controversy between Jesus and the Sadducees (Luke 20:41-44). The proper identification of the “Lords” was the key to the text.

Possibly this psalm originally referred to one of the kings of David’s line, perhaps at his enthronement. In that context, “the Lord” would be Yahweh, and “my lord” is the king. The promise to make this king’s enemies his footstool would be a promise of divine favor for a successful reign. But Jesus, as we know from all three Synoptic Gospels, interpreted Psalm 110:1 in a messianic sense, as applying to himself (Mark 12:35-37). Jesus probably used the Psalm to refute narrow views of the Messiah, that he would be only a human king of David’s line.

Following Jesus, Peter insisted that the “Lord” to whom the invitation was addressed (to sit at his right hand) was the Messiah. David did not figure in the account at all, in its messianic sense. After all, he did not ascend to heaven to sit at God’s right hand. Peter stressed that what was in view was the unique son of David, Jesus. The text spoke of a heavenly enthronement, not one on earth. Indeed, Jesus had predicted to the Jewish leaders, “The Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God” (Luke 22:69).

Peter had already asserted that David could not have been speaking about himself, for he died, was buried and suffered decay. Nor was there any evidence that he had ascended to heaven (2:34). What David did know was that God had promised to put one of his descendants on the throne (2:30). The descendant about whom David must have been prophesying was the risen and resurrected Christ. Peter’s conclusion is: The Messiah is addressed by God as David’s Lord and invited to sit at God’s right hand.

The New Testament writers often used Psalm 110:1 to say that Jesus was exalted to “the right hand of God.” [Matthew 22:4426:64Mark 12:3614:6216:19Romans 8:341 Corinthians 15:25Ephesians 1:20Colossians 3:1Hebrews 1:3138:110:1212:221 Peter 3:22.]  The New Testament quotes this verse more often than any other Old Testament verse.

In his speech, Peter uses four points to argue that Jesus is the Messiah:

  • His personal witness,
  • The miraculous events of Pentecost,
  • Information about Jesus that the audience had, and,
  • Scriptural proof texts.

Peter concludes the body of his speech with the point he made throughout the speech: Jesus is Lord and Messiah (2:36). This became an oft-repeated apostolic creed. [Romans 10:91 Corinthians 12:3Philippians 2:11.]

The call to repent (2:37-38)

Many of Peter’s listeners had a deep emotional reaction. The responsive Jewish listeners were “cut to the heart” (2:37). The enormity of what had happened crashed into their consciousness. The man they had spit on and crucified was their Messiah, and he was now sitting in power at God’s right hand. Moved by the Holy Spirit and their own participation in the persecution and death of Jesus, they were humbled and teachable. It was natural for them to ask, in wonderment and trepidation: “What shall we do?” (2:37).

Peter’s reply is the point the entire account in Acts 2 moves toward: “Repent and be baptized…for the forgiveness of your sins” (2:38). His speech and stir-to-action conclusion fulfills Jesus’ prophecy in the last chapter of Luke. There, Jesus had promised: “repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47). Now, repentance had been taught in his name.

The Greek word for repentance is metanoia. It appears frequently in the New Testament as a way to describe conversion. Repentance is a central focus in Acts. [Acts 3:195:318:2211:1813:2417:3019:420:2126:20.]  It literally means a change of mind, a change of heart, a spiritual about-face in one’s life that will be shown by a change in what one does. That change occurs in relationship to the true God. Repentance is not just a feeling of remorse, or a once-in-a-lifetime emotional experience. Nor is it simply a change in behavior. It is a change of mind that leads to a change of behavior. It is a turning away from a life lived in contradiction to God and a turning to him in faith. The aim of repentance is that we should accept what God has intended for us.

Repentance and conversion have a “from” and “to” movement. One goes from an old way of thinking in which God is denied, ignored, resented, or viewed as harsh. One goes to a new life based on loyalty to and faith in the Creator who wants to save us rather than punish us. To repent is to be “turned around,” remolded and transformed — converted. It involves a faith relationship with Jesus Christ.

At the beginning of the New Testament church we find something unexpected being taught about repentance. In his first public sermon, Peter poses repentance and conversion — turning to God — in a surprising way. Peter does not tell these Jews that they had to change their lives in terms of obeying the Law or Torah. The people listening to Peter are described as “God-fearing Jews” who already worshiped and obeyed God (2:5; 5:9). They are presented as blameless in keeping the laws. These Jews did not need to repent of what we commonly think of as law-breaking. As devout Jews, they had been careful to keep the law.

Then to what is Peter referring when he tells these people to repent? Peter tells them to repent by asking them to enter a new relationship with Jesus as their resurrected Savior. The context makes Peter’s purpose clear. He begins by pointing the people to Jesus, whom they had rejected and their leaders had killed (2:22). Throughout the sermon, Peter hammers away at a single point: Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, and people must put their faith in him. This turning to Jesus in faith is summarized as a simple charge: “Repent and be baptized” (2:38).

What are these Jews to repent of? It is their rejection of Jesus as Messiah and Savior! In the context of Peter’s sermon, “to repent” means to change one’s mind about Jesus — to experience him — to accept him as Savior — to place total faith in him. For these Jews, repentance and conversion did not necessarily involve a change of worship practices. In fact, Jewish followers of Jesus continued to worship at synagogue and temple — and they maintained their ancestral traditions. But it did require a new faith toward God and his Messiah.

Repentance and faith are two aspects of the same change of orientation that occurs in converted humans. As we’re told in Acts 20:21, through the words of Paul, one “must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.” While we are commanded by God to repent (17:30), to have our sins forgiven (2:38), and to have faith — humanly speaking, we are incapable of doing any of these things. These are all gifts of God that are bestowed on us through Jesus Christ our Savior. Ultimately, faith and repentance and forgiveness are also gifts of God. [Ephesians 2:8Acts 5:3111:182 Timothy 2:25.]

The need for baptism (2:38)

Peter also speaks of an important act that is associated with receiving the empowering Holy Spirit. That was water baptism, which is an external token of belief in Jesus as Savior. Peter urges his audience to be baptized, and he promises them the gift of the Holy Spirit (2:38). Throughout Acts, when people express faith in Jesus, they are then baptized.

Baptism in water continued to be the visible sign by which those who believed the gospel, repented of their sins, and acknowledged Jesus as Lord were publicly incorporated into the Spirit-baptized fellowship of the new people of God. [Bruce, 70.]

The Jews were already familiar with baptism as a ritual required for people who wanted to have their sins forgiven. John the Baptist baptized people who repented (Matthew 3:611Luke 3:716). Even Jesus insisted on being baptized (Matthew 3:15). But, beginning at Pentecost, there are two new features about baptism. First, it is administered in Jesus’ name. It requires faith in Jesus as Savior. Second, it is associated with the Holy Spirit.

However, Acts does not demonstrate a clear-cut sequence of, 1. Water baptism, 2. Laying on of hands, 3. Spirit baptism — as if baptism itself (and laying on of hands) had some inherent spiritual power as actions with guaranteed results. Baptism is not magic, but a formal and symbolic statement of one’s intentions — an outward rite. Luke seems to go out of his way to show that there is no formula or fixed sequence of acts involved in receiving the Spirit. Cornelius and his family received the Spirit before they were baptized (10:44-48). Some disciples of John the Baptist who had been baptized still had not received the Holy Spirit, perhaps years later (19:1-7). Not until Paul laid his hands on these individuals, did they receive the Spirit. And in the baptism of 3,000 people described in Acts 2, Luke did not mention any “laying on of hands.”

Luke does not give us a clear-cut pattern of how and when the Spirit is given. However, baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit are associated together. What we see is that water baptism is an important ritual in which the individual makes public a confession in Jesus. The laying on of hands signals the acceptance of that individual by the community of believers.

In the name of Jesus (2:38-39)

Believers should be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ” (2:38). The “name” refers not to a special pronunciation of consonants and vowels, but to Jesus himself — his person, his power and his presence. This phrase “in the name of Jesus” recurs throughout Acts in many circumstances. It denotes the power and authority through which the church carries out its activities. [See Acts 3:6164:101217-1830: 5:28, 40-41; 8:12; 9:16, 21, 27, 28; 15:26; 16:18; 19:13, 17; 21:13; 22:16; 26:9.]

In baptism, it was customary to make an outward confession of Jesus as Lord and Savior. [Acts 8:3711:1716:31Romans 10:91 Corinthians 12:3Philippians 2:11.]  The phrase “in the name of Jesus” is an expression of faith, as well as a commitment to Jesus, in all that this might entail. The desire to repent and commit, along with willingness to make a public statement of both through baptism, is associated with a person experiencing the gift of the Holy Spirit.

We should distinguish the gift of the Spirit from the gifts of the Spirit. Gifts of the Spirit are various spiritual abilities given to people in the church, to be used for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:1-11). The gift of the Holy Spirit, however, is the Spirit himself, given to all who have faith in Jesus. This Spirit ministers all aspects of God’s salvation to all believers. By this gift, all are Spirit-baptized into one body, the church (verse 13).

In all cases, this baptism is dependent on God’s will — “all whom the Lord our God will call” (2:39). Luke indicates that any conversions that occur are not the result of human programs or energy. They depend on the calling of God, as Jesus had stated (John 6:44).

“Be saved” (2:40-41)

Peter’s speech ends with the wonderful promise that his listeners would receive God’s Spirit and become part of the people of God. Luke summarizes Peter’s plea with a sentence: “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation” (2:40). Peter’s phrase is actually in the passive tense, “be saved,” but most English translations obscure this important fact. We cannot “save ourselves,” whether by repentance or any other action. Salvation is an act of God, not something we can do on our own. Grammarians call this “the divine passive,” with God understood to be the one doing the work. A better translation is, “Let God save you from this corrupt generation.” He does the work, if we do not reject his call.

The thought of verse 40 (“be saved”) picks up the sense of Joel’s prophecy mentioned in verse 21: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Peter is not telling his listeners to “do” something, except to respond to what God has already done. He is telling them to take advantage of the promise offered to them by accepting Jesus as the promised Messiah. They were to “be saved” from a corrupt generation in Jerusalem and Judea by becoming part of a remnant people accepted by God.

Eternal salvation was the main issue, but those who accepted Peter’s call to repent could also be “saved” (if they lived long enough) from the nation’s terrible future. Jerusalem and Judea were heading toward the destructive Jewish-Roman war of 66-70 a.d. Those who had faith in Jesus could escape what was coming upon the nation (Luke 21:20-24, with Matthew 24:15-18Mark 13:14-16).

About 3,000 people accepted Peter’s challenge to be baptized that Pentecost day. (We don’t know how many refused and mocked.) From this single apostolic sermon on one day, more people became disciples of Jesus than during the entire time of Jesus’ public ministry. The promise of Jesus, that his disciples would perform greater works than he had, was true (John 14:12).


Acts 2:36-41

In his speech, Peter uses four points to argue that Jesus is the Messiah:

  • His personal witness,
  • The miraculous events of Pentecost,
  • Information about Jesus that the audience had, and,
  • Scriptural proof texts.

Peter concludes the body of his speech with the point he made throughout the speech: Jesus is Lord and Messiah (2:36). This became an oft-repeated apostolic creed. [Romans 10:91 Corinthians 12:3Philippians 2:11.]

The call to repent (2:37-38)

Many of Peter’s listeners had a deep emotional reaction. The responsive Jewish listeners were “cut to the heart” (2:37). The enormity of what had happened crashed into their consciousness. The man they had spit on and crucified was their Messiah, and he was now sitting in power at God’s right hand. Moved by the Holy Spirit and their own participation in the persecution and death of Jesus, they were humbled and teachable. It was natural for them to ask, in wonderment and trepidation: “What shall we do?” (2:37).

Peter’s reply is the point the entire account in Acts 2 moves toward: “Repent and be baptized…for the forgiveness of your sins” (2:38). His speech and stir-to-action conclusion fulfills Jesus’ prophecy in the last chapter of Luke. There, Jesus had promised: “repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47). Now, repentance had been taught in his name.

The Greek word for repentance is metanoia. It appears frequently in the New Testament as a way to describe conversion. Repentance is a central focus in Acts. [Acts 3:195:318:2211:1813:2417:3019:420:2126:20.]  It literally means a change of mind, a change of heart, a spiritual about-face in one’s life that will be shown by a change in what one does. That change occurs in relationship to the true God. Repentance is not just a feeling of remorse, or a once-in-a-lifetime emotional experience. Nor is it simply a change in behavior. It is a change of mind that leads to a change of behavior. It is a turning away from a life lived in contradiction to God and a turning to him in faith. The aim of repentance is that we should accept what God has intended for us.

Repentance and conversion have a “from” and “to” movement. One goes from an old way of thinking in which God is denied, ignored, resented, or viewed as harsh. One goes to a new life based on loyalty to and faith in the Creator who wants to save us rather than punish us. To repent is to be “turned around,” remolded and transformed — converted. It involves a faith relationship with Jesus Christ.

At the beginning of the New Testament church we find something unexpected being taught about repentance. In his first public sermon, Peter poses repentance and conversion — turning to God — in a surprising way. Peter does not tell these Jews that they had to change their lives in terms of obeying the Law or Torah. The people listening to Peter are described as “God-fearing Jews” who already worshiped and obeyed God (2:5; 5:9). They are presented as blameless in keeping the laws. These Jews did not need to repent of what we commonly think of as law-breaking. As devout Jews, they had been careful to keep the law.

Then to what is Peter referring when he tells these people to repent? Peter tells them to repent by asking them to enter a new relationship with Jesus as their resurrected Savior. The context makes Peter’s purpose clear. He begins by pointing the people to Jesus, whom they had rejected and their leaders had killed (2:22). Throughout the sermon, Peter hammers away at a single point: Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, and people must put their faith in him. This turning to Jesus in faith is summarized as a simple charge: “Repent and be baptized” (2:38).

What are these Jews to repent of? It is their rejection of Jesus as Messiah and Savior! In the context of Peter’s sermon, “to repent” means to change one’s mind about Jesus — to experience him — to accept him as Savior — to place total faith in him. For these Jews, repentance and conversion did not necessarily involve a change of worship practices. In fact, Jewish followers of Jesus continued to worship at synagogue and temple — and they maintained their ancestral traditions. But it did require a new faith toward God and his Messiah.

Repentance and faith are two aspects of the same change of orientation that occurs in converted humans. As we’re told in Acts 20:21, through the words of Paul, one “must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.” While we are commanded by God to repent (17:30), to have our sins forgiven (2:38), and to have faith — humanly speaking, we are incapable of doing any of these things. These are all gifts of God that are bestowed on us through Jesus Christ our Savior. Ultimately, faith and repentance and forgiveness are also gifts of God. [Ephesians 2:8Acts 5:3111:182 Timothy 2:25.]

The need for baptism (2:38)

Peter also speaks of an important act that is associated with receiving the empowering Holy Spirit. That was water baptism, which is an external token of belief in Jesus as Savior. Peter urges his audience to be baptized, and he promises them the gift of the Holy Spirit (2:38). Throughout Acts, when people express faith in Jesus, they are then baptized.

Baptism in water continued to be the visible sign by which those who believed the gospel, repented of their sins, and acknowledged Jesus as Lord were publicly incorporated into the Spirit-baptized fellowship of the new people of God. [Bruce, 70.]

The Jews were already familiar with baptism as a ritual required for people who wanted to have their sins forgiven. John the Baptist baptized people who repented (Matthew 3:611Luke 3:716). Even Jesus insisted on being baptized (Matthew 3:15). But, beginning at Pentecost, there are two new features about baptism. First, it is administered in Jesus’ name. It requires faith in Jesus as Savior. Second, it is associated with the Holy Spirit.

However, Acts does not demonstrate a clear-cut sequence of, 1. Water baptism, 2. Laying on of hands, 3. Spirit baptism — as if baptism itself (and laying on of hands) had some inherent spiritual power as actions with guaranteed results. Baptism is not magic, but a formal and symbolic statement of one’s intentions — an outward rite. Luke seems to go out of his way to show that there is no formula or fixed sequence of acts involved in receiving the Spirit. Cornelius and his family received the Spirit before they were baptized (10:44-48). Some disciples of John the Baptist who had been baptized still had not received the Holy Spirit, perhaps years later (19:1-7). Not until Paul laid his hands on these individuals, did they receive the Spirit. And in the baptism of 3,000 people described in Acts 2, Luke did not mention any “laying on of hands.”

Luke does not give us a clear-cut pattern of how and when the Spirit is given. However, baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit are associated together. What we see is that water baptism is an important ritual in which the individual makes public a confession in Jesus. The laying on of hands signals the acceptance of that individual by the community of believers.

In the name of Jesus (2:38-39)

Believers should be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ” (2:38). The “name” refers not to a special pronunciation of consonants and vowels, but to Jesus himself — his person, his power and his presence. This phrase “in the name of Jesus” recurs throughout Acts in many circumstances. It denotes the power and authority through which the church carries out its activities. [See Acts 3:6164:101217-1830: 5:28, 40-41; 8:12; 9:16, 21, 27, 28; 15:26; 16:18; 19:13, 17; 21:13; 22:16; 26:9.]

In baptism, it was customary to make an outward confession of Jesus as Lord and Savior. [Acts 8:3711:1716:31Romans 10:91 Corinthians 12:3Philippians 2:11.]  The phrase “in the name of Jesus” is an expression of faith, as well as a commitment to Jesus, in all that this might entail. The desire to repent and commit, along with willingness to make a public statement of both through baptism, is associated with a person experiencing the gift of the Holy Spirit.

We should distinguish the gift of the Spirit from the gifts of the Spirit. Gifts of the Spirit are various spiritual abilities given to people in the church, to be used for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:1-11). The gift of the Holy Spirit, however, is the Spirit himself, given to all who have faith in Jesus. This Spirit ministers all aspects of God’s salvation to all believers. By this gift, all are Spirit-baptized into one body, the church (verse 13).

In all cases, this baptism is dependent on God’s will — “all whom the Lord our God will call” (2:39). Luke indicates that any conversions that occur are not the result of human programs or energy. They depend on the calling of God, as Jesus had stated (John 6:44).

“Be saved” (2:40-41)

Peter’s speech ends with the wonderful promise that his listeners would receive God’s Spirit and become part of the people of God. Luke summarizes Peter’s plea with a sentence: “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation” (2:40). Peter’s phrase is actually in the passive tense, “be saved,” but most English translations obscure this important fact. We cannot “save ourselves,” whether by repentance or any other action. Salvation is an act of God, not something we can do on our own. Grammarians call this “the divine passive,” with God understood to be the one doing the work. A better translation is, “Let God save you from this corrupt generation.” He does the work, if we do not reject his call.

The thought of verse 40 (“be saved”) picks up the sense of Joel’s prophecy mentioned in verse 21: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Peter is not telling his listeners to “do” something, except to respond to what God has already done. He is telling them to take advantage of the promise offered to them by accepting Jesus as the promised Messiah. They were to “be saved” from a corrupt generation in Jerusalem and Judea by becoming part of a remnant people accepted by God.

Eternal salvation was the main issue, but those who accepted Peter’s call to repent could also be “saved” (if they lived long enough) from the nation’s terrible future. Jerusalem and Judea were heading toward the destructive Jewish-Roman war of 66-70 a.d. Those who had faith in Jesus could escape what was coming upon the nation (Luke 21:20-24, with Matthew 24:15-18Mark 13:14-16).

About 3,000 people accepted Peter’s challenge to be baptized that Pentecost day. (We don’t know how many refused and mocked.) From this single apostolic sermon on one day, more people became disciples of Jesus than during the entire time of Jesus’ public ministry. The promise of Jesus, that his disciples would perform greater works than he had, was true (John 14:12).


Acts 2:42-47

Fellowship of believers (2:42-43)

Luke next describes the communal life of the first Jewish converts in Jerusalem: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, were in fellowship with each other, ate together, and prayed (2:42). Let’s examine briefly each of these characteristics.

The disciples devoted themselves to the “apostles’ teaching.” The apostles had no particular credentials as teachers in terms of being recognized religious authorities. None of the apostles had any formal religious training. They had been fishermen, tax collectors and ordinary citizens. Yet, it was clear to the believers that the apostles had come in the power and authority of Jesus. They had the experience of being with Jesus and being taught by him directly. For these reasons, the new converts were careful to listen to and put into practice the apostles’ teachings.

The believers devoted themselves to “fellowship.” The use of the definite article in Greek, “the fellowship,” implies that the account has reference to some type of specific gathering. While Jesus must have been the focus of these meetings, the Jerusalem disciples no doubt maintained something of the flavor of their Jewish roots.

The believers in Jerusalem were devoted to prayer (2:42). Once again, the definite article and the plural (“the prayers”) suggest that Luke is referring to specific prayers or times of prayer. The apostles attended Jewish prayer services in the temple (3:1) and the converts met in the temple (2:46). It wouldn’t be surprising if their prayers followed Jewish models, although the content would be different because such prayers would often concern Jesus and be offered in his name. Prayer is a regular feature of Luke’s narrative. [See the following examples: Acts 1:14242:424:24-316:469:4010:2493111:512:513:314:2316:2522:1728:8.]

Breaking of bread

The other activity the disciples devoted themselves to was “the breaking of bread” (2:42). There has been much controversy about what Luke had in mind here. Some commentators interpret the “breaking of bread” as nothing more than an ordinary meal. Others see the disciples as engaging in a Jewish fellowship meal. This is a reasonable deduction, since these believers were Jews and would have adapted customs natural to them. All meals had religious significance for Jews. Meals began with a prayer of thanksgiving and included a ceremonial breaking of bread. It’s reasonable to suppose that these Jews, now following Jesus, would have continued and extended the meaning of their communal meal.

The apostles would have taught these disciples that Jesus broke bread and gave thanks at meals. More specifically, Jesus’ breaking of the bread at the last supper would have taken on great significance (Luke 24:35). Some biblical scholars therefore see this as the first love or agape feast (Jude 12). Some call the reference to the breaking of bread the beginning of the regular observance of the Lord’s Supper. They point to the use of the definite article in “the bread” as an indication that a particular meal was in view here.

When Luke uses the expression “the breaking of bread” he sometimes means the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:19). But on other occasions “the breaking of bread” seems to refer to an ordinary meal. [Luke 24:3035Acts 20:1127:35.]  There is logic in seeing this communal “breaking of bread” as a meal that had religious significance in terms of its connection to Jesus. Luke emphasized the association between meals and Jesus’ presence in his Gospel (Luke 24:41-42Acts 1:410:41).

William Willimon perhaps gives us the best way to view this controversial topic of “the breaking of the bread”:

The gathering of the fellowship at the table is another tangible, visible expression of the work of the Spirit among the new community. Go through the Gospel of Luke and note all occasions when “he was at table with them.” Each dinner-time episode in Luke is a time of fellowship, revelation, and controversy…. Eating together is a mark of unity, solidarity, and deep friendship, a visible sign that social barriers which once plagued these people have broken down. Whether this “breaking of bread” is a reference to our Eucharist or Lord’s Supper is a matter of debate. Probably, Peter’s church of Luke’s day would not know our distinction between the church merely breaking bread and the church breaking bread as a sacramental religious activity. In good Jewish fashion, when the blessing is said at the table, the table becomes a holy place and eating together a sacred activity…. Perhaps every meal for the church was experienced as an anticipation of the Messianic banquet, a foretaste of Jesus’ promise that his followers would “eat and drink at my table in my kingdom” (Luke 22:30). [Willimon, 41.]

All things in common (2:44-45)

Commentaries on Acts of the Apostles

Luke next describes how the community of believers in Jerusalem “had everything in common” (2:44). He gives more details in 4:32-5:11, and it will be discussed more when we reach that section. Suffice it to say here that the statement has led to some misleading views of what Christian communities should be like. Luke was not telling us that the church should practice “Christian communism.” Luke was describing a voluntary sharing of some possessions, on an as-needed basis (2:45). This will become clear as we study this and other passages related to the issue. Having “everything in common” was an ideal practiced by this close-knit church in this one city, under extraordinary times. Acts is history, not law. It is not presenting us with a practice that should be normalized for the church as a whole.

We should not assume that all of the Jerusalem Christians were required to sell all of their goods and pool their resources. For one thing, the selling of goods is done voluntarily — otherwise the generous gift of Barnabas (4:36-37) would not be worthy of note. In addition, Luke depicts the selling of possessions to meet community needs an ongoing process rather than as a one-time total divestment. He envisions a community where everyone is concerned about everyone else and willing to part with their possessions on behalf of others when the need requires. The ideal is repeated in Acts, on an even grander scale. When a famine spreads throughout the world and [Judea] is hit especially hard, the church in Antioch of Syria makes provisions to help its suffering neighbors in Jerusalem (11:27-30). [Mark Allan Powell, What Are They Saying About Acts? (New York: Paulist, 1991), page 78.]

The Greek phrase Luke used here, apanta koina (“everything in common”) may allude to the Hellenistic idea that “friends hold all things in common.” The phrase was widely used as a feature of utopian or ideal societies. [Plato, Republic 449C.]

A Hellenistic reader would recognize in Luke’s description the sort of “foundation story” that was rather widespread in Hellenistic literature. An early example is Plato’s Critias,which pictures the early days of Athens as a time when “none of its members possessed any private property, but they regarded all they had as the common property of all.” [Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina series, volume 5 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1992), page 62.]

Luke wrote to Theophilus, who was probably a thoroughly Hellenized Roman. To such a person, Luke would have been saying that the Holy Spirit had made possible a reality that approached the highest and most ideal aspirations of the philosophers. At the same time, this group of Christians “who had everything in common” matched the idealism of Jewish communal groups. The Essenes, for example, practiced a form of communal ownership of property and goods. [Philo, Every Good Man is Free 12.75, 85-87.]

The Jerusalem disciples, living a quasi-communal lifestyle, also strove to fulfill the promise of Moses. Israel had been promised that if the nation obeyed God, there would be no poor, because he would bless them (Deuteronomy 15:4-5). As the “righteous remnant” in Christ, these Jewish disciples may have wanted to see this condition of life fulfilled within their group. What we have then is an idealistic group of Jewish Christians attempting to live an ideal life of sharing and giving. But it was not quite what it seemed, as we shall see later. Nor was it a lifestyle mandated for all Christians in all places at all times. Even as an ideal in this one place, it faltered and led to controversy (5:1-11; 6:1-6; 11:29), something we will take up in later chapters.

In the temple courts (2:46)

This group of enthusiastic Jerusalem Christians met in the temple courts every day (2:46; see also 3:11 and 5:12). By telling us about this, Luke is showing that they continued to follow their accustomed forms of Jewish worship. The part of the temple area they met in was Solomon’s colonnade, on the east side of the outer court.

As Jews who were Christians and also Christians who were Jews, they not only considered Jerusalem to be their city but continued to regard the temple as their sanctuary and the Law as their law. Evidently they thought of themselves as the faithful remnant within Israel for whose sake all the institutions and customs of the nation existed. [Longenecker, 291.]

At the same time, “they broke bread in their homes and ate together” (2:46). The converts seemed to spend a good deal of time each day in social interaction. Those who live frenetic lives in modern Western society can only wonder at how they found time to fellowship so frequently. The fact that they ate in each other’s homes indicates that these disciples did not sell everything they owned and give all the proceeds to a communal pool. They still owned their own homes.

The original group of 3,000 increased each day as “the Lord added to their number” those who were being saved (2:47). God’s calling is instrumental in bringing people to Christ, and Luke was careful to point this out. He maintained this viewpoint on conversion throughout Acts (2:39, 47; 5:14; 11:24). The church today, in all its evangelistic and discipling programs, should remember this.

Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012


Acts 3:1-10

The Jerusalem Ministry of Peter and John
ACTS 3:1-4:22

Peter and John (3:1)

Acts 3 describes the dramatic healing of a beggar. How soon after Pentecost this occurred is not clear. Days, weeks or months may have elapsed. The story begins with the indefinite, “One day…” This chapter describes the preaching of the gospel in Jerusalem (specifically, at the temple) by Peter and John, two of the church’s leaders. What Luke wrote is important because it shows us how the apostles preached the gospel.

Luke began his story by referring to John (presumably the son of Zebedee) as teaching alongside Peter. We do not know why Luke mentioned him, for he had no active role in Luke’s story. John was the silent partner in this story, as well as on one other occasion where his name appeared (8:14-17). Some scholars suggest that Luke referred to two apostles witnessing together for “legal” purposes, following the biblical pattern that two witnesses were needed to establish a matter. [Numbers 35:30Deuteronomy 17:619:15Matthew 18:151 Timothy 5:19.]

We are not sure why Luke included John’s name, or why he left out the other apostles. But his stress on Peter is clear. Luke’s account is, in some ways, a “Tale of Two Apostles” — the acts of Peter, and then those of Paul. (Of course, the real “actor” is the Holy Spirit, who guides the church and its preaching.)

Praying in the temple (3:1)

In chapter 3, Luke described Peter and John going to the temple for a formal prayer time. It was the ninth hour of the day, about 3:00 p.m. Devout Jews observed three times of prayer at the temple — at 9:00 a.m., at noon, and at 3:00 p.m. The special feature of the first and last prayer time was the offering of the morning and evening sacrifices (Exodus 29:38-42Numbers 28:1-8). The Jewish historian Josephus gives an example of how important these daily sacrifices were for the Jews. They continued to be offered even when food was scarce when the Romans besieged the city during the Jewish War of a.d. 66-70. [Josephus, Antiquities 14:65.]

The fact that the apostles went to the temple to pray at these times indicates that they were continuing to follow Jewish forms of worship and Jewish customs. The apostles remained at the heart of Jewish national life, where they could reach people with the gospel message.

Crippled beggar (3:2-6)

“Many wonders and miraculous signs [were] performed by the apostles” (Acts 2:43). The healing of the beggar was a striking exhibit of this apostolic power. A man crippled from his birth, a beggar, regularly asked for charity at the temple gate called Beautiful. Scholars are not sure which gate this was, as neither the Talmud nor Josephus mention a “Beautiful Gate.”

Among Jews of the time, almsgiving was considered an act that gained a person religious merit. Giving to the poor was emphasized in the rabbinic tradition and in Jewish writings such as the book of Tobit (4:7-11; 12:8-9). In line with this tradition, Jews coming to the temple would often give people a coin or two. Beggars stationed themselves in strategic positions to receive some of these alms.

So, as Peter and John approached the gate, this beggar asked them for money. But Peter spoke to him, saying, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (3:6). Peter didn’t mean he had absolutely no money — as though he didn’t have access to a single coin. Rather, he was stressing the much greater value of God’s healing.

Peter was also making a statement about the role of the messianic community in the world. Its main mission was to enable humans to partake of the spiritual gifts God gives. “A crippled man asks for alms but the community which holds all goods in common has little silver or gold to offer him. Temporary modest financial gain and charitable handouts are not what this community is primarily about.” [Willimon, 44.]

We shouldn’t assume that it is useless to give financial help to the poor and needy. The church can make available the knowledge of spiritual salvation and provide material help where possible and appropriate.


Acts 3:11-26

Healing in Jesus’ name (3:6-11)

When Peter offered the beggar healing in Jesus’ name, he was instantly made whole and he jumped to his feet. Think of the impact this had on any Jews who saw what had happened. There was no denying that a miracle had occurred. This man had been born lame. No doubt he had begged at the gate for many years and was a known figure. Now, he was up and jumping about.

To emphasize how dramatic this healing was, Luke piled detail upon detail of the beggar’s condition and activity upon being healed. The man’s feet and ankles became strong (3:7). Then he jumped to his feet and began to walk (3:8). Next, the beggar went into the temple, walking and jumping, praising God (3:8-9). (No doubt, there was much about the story to excite Luke, a physician.)

The beggar had been healed at Peter’s initiative, who invoked the name of Jesus. The power of the risen Christ was with him, and when he called on “the name,” God healed the man. Luke used the phrase, “the name of Jesus” several times in this and the next chapter to show the source of the apostles’ power (3:6, 16, 4:10, 18, 30). Luke used this story to show an important connection between Jesus and the apostles: because the apostles teach in Jesus’ name, they also have the same power to heal as he did. That they continued the teaching ministry of Jesus is evidence that they continued the healing ministry as well. The same power was at work.

This point can be seen in the similar words used to describe Peter’s healing and when Jesus healed a paralyzed man in Capernaum. [Matthew 9:2-8Mark 2:3-12Luke 5:17-26.]  There, as here in Acts, the paralyzed man was told to rise, and he jumped to his feet and went home praising God. Everyone who had seen the miracle was amazed and filled with awe (Luke 5:26). In the same way, the people who saw the beggar healed and praising God, were filled with wonder and amazement (Acts 3:10).

The Capernaum miracle gave Jesus public confirmation of his authority to forgive sins as well as to heal the sick. When the apostles healed the lame beggar at the temple gate, they were seen as having the same spiritual authority and power as Jesus. Those who had seen the healing of the beggar — and who had spiritual eyes to see — understood that something of the kingdom of God was being revealed. Isaiah had spoken of the messianic age when “the lame [will] leap like a deer” (Isaiah 35:6). Those at the Beautiful gate had seen the prophecy come to pass.

Peter’s sermon (3:12-26)

The healing of the beggar created a commotion as people rushed to Peter and John in Solomon’s Colonnade (3:11). The outer court of the temple, called the Court of the Gentiles, was surrounded by porticoes. Solomon’s Colonnade ran along the eastern portion of the outer court. The colonnades or porticos were busy places. Religious teachers debated, and taught their pupils in its shade (Luke 2:4619:47John 10:23). Merchants and money changers conducted business there (Luke 19:45John 2:14-16). The early church met and taught there (2:46; 5:12; 42).

As the crowd converged on Solomon’s Colonnade, Peter had an opportunity to preach the gospel. Luke recounted his words in what turned out to be another major presentation of the gospel, similar in content and style to Peter’s Pentecost sermon (2:14-41). Both sermons focused on the proclamation of Jesus Christ as Savior. Here, Peter stressed the role of Jesus as both Isaiah’s Suffering Servant and Moses’ “prophet to come” whom Israel was to obey.

The particular interest of this sermon lies in the way in which it gives further teaching about the person of Jesus, describing him as God’s servant, the Holy and Righteous One, the Author of life and the prophet like Moses. This indicates that a considerable amount of thinking about Jesus, based on study of the Old Testament, was taking place. [I. Howard Marshall, Acts, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), page 90.]

In this speech, Peter stressed the Jews’ rejection of Jesus and his vindication by God. Peter again called for repentance in terms of accepting Jesus as Messiah. At the heart of the speech was the important point that a new reality had entered the world. The presence of the Spirit of God, through the name of Jesus, was beginning to work in new and powerful ways in the lives of ordinary human beings. Luke probably intended his report of Peter’s sermon here and at Pentecost to be examples of how the faith was typically proclaimed to Jews, both as to content and approach.

God of Abraham (3:12-13)

With the healed beggar still holding him, Peter began speaking to the crowd. The first matter he dealt with was the surprise of the onlookers. It was essential that they understood by whose power this healed beggar was standing. The healing was caused by the power of Jesus, the one whom God had chosen and glorified (3:13). To place this event within the context of the Jews’ belief system, Peter referred to God as “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers” (3:13).

By beginning his speech with the greeting, “Fellow Israelites,” and referring to God in the way he did, Peter was attempting to speak from the Jews’ point of view. He was also making an important point about Jesus. This man whom they ignorantly crucified was intimately associated with God and the fathers of the nation in an important way.

To say that God was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was to refer to a time-honored way by which Jews spoke of God. Indeed, God had introduced himself to Moses at the burning bush as the God of the fathers (Exodus 3:6154:5). It underscored the Jewish nation’s self-identification as the people of God from ancient times. This formulaic way of speaking about God was seen throughout the Old Testament, and emphasized Israel as a sanctified nation (1 Kings 18:361 Chronicles 29:18). By New Testament times the phrase “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” connected the glory of ancient Israel to the Jews’ concept of themselves as God’s remnant people (Mark 12:26Acts 7:32).

“God’s Servant” (3:13)

Peter called Jesus “God’s servant,” echoing the theme of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant (Isaiah 42-53). The most direct part of that prophecy in Isaiah began with the words, “My servant…will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted” (52:13). Jesus’ title as “Servant” is only here (3:13, 26) and in one other place in Acts (4:27, 30). But the Servant Songs of Isaiah, especially the section 52:13-53:12, had a great influence on the New Testament. The New Testament contains a number of quotations from these songs. [Matthew 8:1712: 18-21Luke 22:37John 12:38Acts 8:32Romans 10:1615:21.]  Allusions to “Servant” theology, as well as its influence, are also frequently seen. [Mark 10:4514:24Luke 22:37John 12:38Acts 8:32Romans 4:255:198:332-341 Corinthians 15:32 Corinthians 5:21Hebrews 9:281 Peter 2:21-253:18.]

For the first Christians no Old Testament passage was more significant than Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (cf. Acts 8:32). In its words they saw not only the meaning of the Crucifixion as being within the plan of God, but also found there the foundation for a doctrine of Atonement through the death of Christ and a promise of Christ’s vindication beyond the Cross. [Neil, 85.]

They wanted Barabbas (3:13-14)

The Servant described by Isaiah had been handed over by the Jewish people to be killed by Pilate (Luke 23:1-25). Pilate, representing a pagan government, wanted to let Jesus go free. Luke set up Peter’s point by citing this fact in his Gospel. On three occasions, Luke mentioned Pilate wanting to release Jesus (Luke 23: 41622), all against the clamor of God’s own people.

The Jews demanded that another prisoner, a murderer, should be released to them (3:14). This man, Barabbas, was identified by Luke as a rebel who had been imprisoned for rioting and murder (Luke 23:18-1925). So there was a bitter irony in Jesus’ crucifixion. A criminal was given freedom, but the man who wanted to bring the nation spiritual freedom was executed. Jesus’ death became a supreme travesty of humanity’s injustice and spiritual blindness. In contrast to the murderer Barabbas, Jesus was “the Holy and Righteous One” (verse 14). Both titles are used of Jesus in the New Testament. [The “Holy One” is found in Mark 1:24Luke 4:34 John 6:691 John 2:20Revelation 3:7 and the “Righteous One” is in Acts 7:5222:141 John 2:1.]

God raised him up

Continuing with his sermon, Peter said his hearers had disowned Jesus and “killed the author of life.” But “God raised him from the dead” (3:15). The Greek word translated “author” has a range of meanings, including leader, founder, cause, originator, pioneer. Jesus is the founderof eternal life in the sense that he is its giver (John 10:281 John 1:4). He is also the leaderin that he has paved the way by being the first-born of many who will follow him in resurrection (Romans 8:29). Ultimately, Jesus is the source and perfecter of salvation, the pioneer who paved the way and accomplished the task (Hebrews 2:105:912:2).

By virtue of his resurrection, Jesus is the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). Thus, Jesus is representative of the total harvest. His resurrection was the beginning of the entire episode. Jesus’ rising to life is part of the same event as the general resurrection of believers, though the two are separated in time.

We are witnesses (3:15-16)

In his sermon, Peter proclaimed that he and John were witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. Peter then pointed to an example of God’s power to “raise up.” It was the crippled beggar standing right beside them (3:16). The one who was raised to eternal life, Jesus, had “completely healed” the beggar (3:16). Peter insisted that the cripple had been cured on the grounds of “faith in the name of Jesus” (3:16).

There is a question regarding the nature of the faith Peter referred to. According to Luke’s account, the beggar did not show any particular “faith.” He had simply asked Peter and John for money. The possibility of his being healed apparently didn’t enter his mind. Seemingly, God bestowed a gracious gift on the man through the two apostles, apart from any work of faith on his part. Once the beggar saw what happened to him, he believed not only in his healing but understood the source of his healing. It was God whom the beggar praised for his good fortune (3:8).

However, the beggar’s faith was expressed only after the miracle occurred. His healing was by grace — a totally unmerited gift — given to the man apart from his expressing any faith beforehand. If anything, it was Peter’s faith that made the healing possible. He had walked up to the beggar and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (3:6). There is another dimension of faith that helps us understand what Peter meant when he said the beggar had been healed by faith. The believer’s faith does not originate from within the person but comes from the gift that God provides (Romans 4:1711:29Ephesians 1:18-202 Timothy 1:9).

Acted in ignorance (3:17)

As Peter continued speaking, he softened his earlier, more strident rhetoric. Before, he accused his listeners of being murderers. On this occasion, he had a more conciliatory tone. Peter said, “I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders” (3:17). Peter had declared God’s judgment on his compatriots for crucifying the One who had been designated Savior. Here, he stressed God’s foreknowledge of what they would do to Jesus. The “killers” were merely God’s instruments. In the spirit of Jesus, Peter offered God’s mercy to them (Luke 23:34).

The mood has changed from devastating reproof to pleading conciliation. Peter was no longer interested in bringing an accusation against the Jews for their crime. Rather, he hoped his listeners would act on the hopeful message of salvation God was making available to his people Israel. Peter was being charitable to his listeners and their leaders. This is especially evident when we compare this with John’s matter-of-fact condemnation of the people who were responsible for having Jesus crucified (John 9:4115:22).

It may be thought that Peter’s words were surprisingly lenient to people like Caiaphas and the other chief priests, whose determination to have Jesus put to death is underscored in all the Gospels. Nevertheless, here is the proclamation of a divine amnesty, offering a free pardon to all who took part in Jesus’ death, if only they acknowledge their error, confess their sin, and turn to God in repentance. [Bruce, 83.]

Sufferings foretold (3:18, 21)

Continuing his sermon, Peter mentioned a second mitigating factor regarding his listeners’ guilt in the murder of Jesus. Not only did they act in ignorance (3:17), it had been foretold beforehand that Jesus had to suffer at their hands. God was guiding events so that the predictions about the Messiah suffering persecution and martyrdom would be carried out (3:18). God had willed the Servant’s shameful crucifixion (3:21). The Messiah was to suffer and die. This was precisely why the vast majority of Jews would not accept Jesus as Messiah. Jesus of Nazareth had been executed as a common criminal. In the eyes of the Jews, he was under the curse of the Law (Deuteronomy 21:33Galatians 3:13). Thus, they reasoned, he could not have been their Messiah.

Peter was claiming that the reverse was true. It was only because Jesus was crucified that he qualified to be the Savior. He was saying that the witness of the prophets, when properly understood, focused on the Messiah’s suffering. Of course, the Scriptures don’t specifically say that it was the Messiah who would suffer. (Messiah is actually a rare word in the Old Testament.) Isaiah spoke of the Servant (not the Messiah) as the one who would suffer and die for the sins of others. It is not clear that the Jews understood the Servant and the Messiah to be one and the same. This perhaps was where faith entered. One had to accept Jesus’ own claim that his messianic mission was fulfilled in terms of the Servant sufferer.

Nevertheless, Peter claimed that “all the prophets” contain promises of the Messiah’s suffering (3:24). Today, we are unable to find references, literally, in all the prophets to a suffering Messiah. On the other hand, there are passages in several prophets and Psalms that could be taken to refer to a suffering Messiah. [Psalm 22, 69; Jeremiah 11:19Zechariah 13:7Daniel 9:26.]  We can probably understand “all the prophets” in a collective sense. What is written down from one or a few prophets can be attributed to all of them as a class.

Repent and turn to God (3:19)

Throughout his sermon, Peter insisted that Jesus is Savior. He suffered according to God’s plan and the prophets had foretold his suffering. The apostles had seen Jesus’ death and resurrection. At least some of the audience would have heard Jesus teach and heal — and seen him die. Given these facts, Peter preached that only one reaction from the audience is appropriate. Luke summarized it in a sentence: “Repent…and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out” (3:19).

The meaning of “repent” here (as in Peter’s first sermon) must be seen in context. He was speaking to devout Jews who prayed at the temple and kept the Law. For them, repentance was not so much turning away from a sin-filled life. In general, these Jews would have already been following the principles of a good life, based on the Law. What “repent” almost certainly wouldn’t have meant to the Jews was their need to turn away from idols to serve God. Pagan Gentile converts would have to take this step, as they did in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 1:9) and Lystra (14:15). The Jews, however, abhorred idolatry, and they worshipped the one true God.

Nonetheless, Peter did speak here of repentance as a turning to God (1:19). The reason is because all have sinned and come short of the glory of God — Jew and Gentile alike (Romans 3:23). All people must turn to God, even those who have understood and tried to follow the Holy Scriptures (Acts 26:20). To experience reconciliation with God, everyone needs forgiveness, repentance, and the Holy Spirit.

For this audience, “repentance” would mean turning to God by accepting Jesus as Lord, and as the Messiah whom God had chosen (9:35; 11:27). When people acknowledge the Savior, they acknowledge the need for being saved from a condition of sinfulness. Jesus had already paid for their sins, but they would not experience his forgiveness unless they turned to God (3:19).

Times of refreshing

Peter associated the forgiveness of sins with the “times of refreshing” to come (3:19). This is a unique phrase in the New Testament. It has generally been thought to refer to Jesus’ return at a time of general salvation (1:7). Jesus must remain in heaven until that time, that is, “until the time comes for God to restore everything” (3:21). Luke here used his characteristic word dei to show the compelling need for different aspects of God’s plan. Dei means “it is necessary.” Jesus must remain in heaven simply because that is what God has decreed as part of his purpose for humanity.

Peter associated this time of restoration with the future rebirth of Israel, as described in the Old Testament. In many Old Testament prophecies, this rebirth was placed in the context of the Messiah’s coming. In terms of a New Testament understanding, the restoration would occur at the “second coming” of the Messiah in the last days — and then “everything” would be restored.

In one sense, however, the time of renewal began with Jesus’ earthly ministry, and with John the Baptist. [Malachi 4:5Mark 9:12-13Matthew 11:71417:11-13.]  The kingdom of God was with human beings in the presence of the incarnate Jesus. Something of a “restoration” or rebirth is occurring in the world right now. This is the spiritual rebirth or conversion of people through the Holy Spirit, as they are brought into his body, the church.

But the “restitution” or “refreshing” that Peter spoke about is something that occurs at Jesus’ return. This was announced by “his holy prophets.” Until this time, when all the enemies of God are overthrown, Jesus must remain in heaven — at God’s right hand, to use another metaphor (1 Corinthians 15:24-28).

Peter seemed to connect Jesus’ return (the refreshing) to his listeners’ repentance, as though one depends on the other (3:19). But this is trying to force precision out of words that were not meant to provide a precise timetable or causal relationship. Some have suggested that if Christians fail to spread the message of salvation and people refuse to respond to the gospel, then God cannot send Jesus a second time. This would make humans, not God, sovereign. It presupposes that God cannot get his message to the world or accepted unless enough people are interesting in disseminating it — or responding to it.

The book of Revelation, written at the close of the apostolic era, takes a different viewpoint. It describes conditions of the end-time in apocalyptic format. This book insists that Jesus’ return will occur even though the entire world is hostile to God. Indeed, Jesus’ return will be necessary to eliminate this hostility, as well as the world’s rejection of the gospel message. There is no bold talk in Revelation about the church spreading the gospel. Humans will not necessarily even be required to spread the message, for a supernatural messenger of God (“an angel”) will preach the gospel to the world (Revelation 14:6-7). In short, God does not need humans; humans need God.

What Peter probably meant was that his listeners should repent so that the “times of refreshing” could come to them. They will experience this refreshing for themselves when they repent and sense the forgiveness and acceptance of God. When God will send Jesus a second time is a secret he alone holds. When he decrees it is time, Jesus will return and “restore everything” (3:21).

A prophet like Moses (3:22-23)

Peter continued to plead with his hearers to respond to his challenge and repent. He used another proof-text from the Hebrew Scriptures to show that the prophets spoke of a Messiah to come, whom Peter said is Jesus. This time Peter cited the words of Moses. They must hear his words about Jesus, Peter insists, because Moses, one of their fathers, said God would raise up a prophet like him and “you must listen to everything he tells you” (3:22). If that prophet was not heeded, those rejecting him would no longer be considered to be part of God’s people (3:23).

While conciliatory, Peter’s speech here contained a threat. Would they listen to the prophet of whom Peter was speaking and accept Jesus? Or would they reject him a second time? If they spurned him, they would forfeit their privileges.

In his sermon, Peter used Moses’ prophetic reference to the prophet whom the nation should one day obey (Deuteronomy 18:1518-19), and applied it to Jesus. If some Jews did not identify “the Prophet” with the Messiah, they did associate his appearance with the messianic age (John 1:20-217:40-41). Many Jews accepted this prophecy as pointing to an individual, a second Moses, who would stand as a mediator between Israel and God. Peter was using a widely accepted text that pointed to the Messiah — or spoke directly of him. Peter was saying that Moses backed up his exhortation: don’t reject Jesus, because he is the prophet that must be listened to (3:23).

No group within Israel that considered itself to be God’s righteous remnant in the inauguration of the final eschatological days could expect to win a hearing among Jews without attempting to define its position vis-a-vis Israel’s great leaders of the past — particularly Abraham, Moses and David. And that is exactly what Luke shows Peter doing as he concludes his call for repentance. [Longenecker, 298.]

Foretold since Samuel (3:24)

Peter next appealed to all the prophets “beginning with Samuel” as having “foretold these days” (3:24). He reminded the people that every past spiritual luminary whom they considered to have spoken God’s word, pointed to Jesus as being the Messiah. They each prefigured him in a partial way, and all their functions were performed in the fullest way by Jesus.

Commentaries on Acts of the Apostles

Peter had already referred to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — and then to Moses, Israel’s first and greatest prophet. Now, he told them that every prophet spoke of Jesus. The Hebrew Scriptures as a whole bear testimony to Jesus, and his listeners should accept this.

The reference to Samuel foretelling the message is difficult to understand. We have only a few words of Samuel recorded in the Old Testament, and they don’t seem to refer to the Messiah. Perhaps Samuel’s prophecies of David’s kingdom [1 Samuel 16:1313:13-1415:27-2928:17.]  were thought to refer to the messianic rule of his descendant (the Messiah), although they are indirect. Peter could have also referred to Nathan’s prophecy, which spoke of the establishment of the kingdom by a son who would come from David (2 Samuel 7:12-16). It spoke of a human being, Solomon. However, elements of the prophecy could be interpreted as having messianic meaning.

Heirs of the covenant (3:25)

Peter then spoke in hopeful tones to his Jewish listeners. He said they were the heirs of the prophets and the covenant about which he had been talking. In line with their status as God’s people Israel, Jesus was sent to them first (3:25). Peter cast his appeal in terms of the promise to Abraham, quoting Genesis 22:18 and 26:4. There the Scripture spoke of a future descendant of Abraham in messianic terms: “Through your offspring all peoples on earth will be blessed” (3:25).

Peter insisted that the promise to Abraham — one of their revered fathers — was fulfilled in the Messiah, that is, in Jesus. The prophecy implied that the Jews would be only the first to receive the message of salvation. But the prophecy speaks of “all peoples” and not just Jews as being blessed.

How clearly did Peter understand that the gospel would go to all nations? It’s doubtful that at the time Peter understood the scope of God’s international plan. He later had to learn through a vision and by personal experience that God was giving salvation to non-Jews. At best, says Howard Marshall, “The reference to the Gentiles is at this stage a quiet hint.” [Marshall, 96.]

Of course, Peter would not be emphasizing a work to the Gentiles before a Jewish crowd. To do so would not have been taken lightly by his listeners, as Paul later discovered (22:21-22).

Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012


Acts 3:12-19

God of Abraham (3:12-13)

With the healed beggar still holding him, Peter began speaking to the crowd. The first matter he dealt with was the surprise of the onlookers. It was essential that they understood by whose power this healed beggar was standing. The healing was caused by the power of Jesus, the one whom God had chosen and glorified (3:13). To place this event within the context of the Jews’ belief system, Peter referred to God as “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers” (3:13).

By beginning his speech with the greeting, “Fellow Israelites,” and referring to God in the way he did, Peter was attempting to speak from the Jews’ point of view. He was also making an important point about Jesus. This man whom they ignorantly crucified was intimately associated with God and the fathers of the nation in an important way.

To say that God was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was to refer to a time-honored way by which Jews spoke of God. Indeed, God had introduced himself to Moses at the burning bush as the God of the fathers (Exodus 3:6154:5). It underscored the Jewish nation’s self-identification as the people of God from ancient times. This formulaic way of speaking about God was seen throughout the Old Testament, and emphasized Israel as a sanctified nation (1 Kings 18:361 Chronicles 29:18). By New Testament times the phrase “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” connected the glory of ancient Israel to the Jews’ concept of themselves as God’s remnant people (Mark 12:26Acts 7:32).

“God’s Servant” (3:13)

Peter called Jesus “God’s servant,” echoing the theme of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant (Isaiah 42-53). The most direct part of that prophecy in Isaiah began with the words, “My servant…will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted” (52:13). Jesus’ title as “Servant” is only here (3:13, 26) and in one other place in Acts (4:27, 30). But the Servant Songs of Isaiah, especially the section 52:13-53:12, had a great influence on the New Testament. The New Testament contains a number of quotations from these songs. [Matthew 8:1712: 18-21Luke 22:37John 12:38Acts 8:32Romans 10:1615:21.]  Allusions to “Servant” theology, as well as its influence, are also frequently seen. [Mark 10:4514:24Luke 22:37John 12:38Acts 8:32Romans 4:255:198:332-341 Corinthians 15:32 Corinthians 5:21Hebrews 9:281 Peter 2:21-253:18.]

For the first Christians no Old Testament passage was more significant than Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (cf. Acts 8:32). In its words they saw not only the meaning of the Crucifixion as being within the plan of God, but also found there the foundation for a doctrine of Atonement through the death of Christ and a promise of Christ’s vindication beyond the Cross. [Neil, 85.]

They wanted Barabbas (3:13-14)

The Servant described by Isaiah had been handed over by the Jewish people to be killed by Pilate (Luke 23:1-25). Pilate, representing a pagan government, wanted to let Jesus go free. Luke set up Peter’s point by citing this fact in his Gospel. On three occasions, Luke mentioned Pilate wanting to release Jesus (Luke 23: 41622), all against the clamor of God’s own people.

The Jews demanded that another prisoner, a murderer, should be released to them (3:14). This man, Barabbas, was identified by Luke as a rebel who had been imprisoned for rioting and murder (Luke 23:18-1925). So there was a bitter irony in Jesus’ crucifixion. A criminal was given freedom, but the man who wanted to bring the nation spiritual freedom was executed. Jesus’ death became a supreme travesty of humanity’s injustice and spiritual blindness. In contrast to the murderer Barabbas, Jesus was “the Holy and Righteous One” (verse 14). Both titles are used of Jesus in the New Testament. [The “Holy One” is found in Mark 1:24Luke 4:34 John 6:691 John 2:20Revelation 3:7 and the “Righteous One” is in Acts 7:5222:141 John 2:1.]

God raised him up

Continuing with his sermon, Peter said his hearers had disowned Jesus and “killed the author of life.” But “God raised him from the dead” (3:15). The Greek word translated “author” has a range of meanings, including leader, founder, cause, originator, pioneer. Jesus is the founderof eternal life in the sense that he is its giver (John 10:281 John 1:4). He is also the leaderin that he has paved the way by being the first-born of many who will follow him in resurrection (Romans 8:29). Ultimately, Jesus is the source and perfecter of salvation, the pioneer who paved the way and accomplished the task (Hebrews 2:105:912:2).

By virtue of his resurrection, Jesus is the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). Thus, Jesus is representative of the total harvest. His resurrection was the beginning of the entire episode. Jesus’ rising to life is part of the same event as the general resurrection of believers, though the two are separated in time.

We are witnesses (3:15-16)

In his sermon, Peter proclaimed that he and John were witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. Peter then pointed to an example of God’s power to “raise up.” It was the crippled beggar standing right beside them (3:16). The one who was raised to eternal life, Jesus, had “completely healed” the beggar (3:16). Peter insisted that the cripple had been cured on the grounds of “faith in the name of Jesus” (3:16).

There is a question regarding the nature of the faith Peter referred to. According to Luke’s account, the beggar did not show any particular “faith.” He had simply asked Peter and John for money. The possibility of his being healed apparently didn’t enter his mind. Seemingly, God bestowed a gracious gift on the man through the two apostles, apart from any work of faith on his part. Once the beggar saw what happened to him, he believed not only in his healing but understood the source of his healing. It was God whom the beggar praised for his good fortune (3:8).

However, the beggar’s faith was expressed only after the miracle occurred. His healing was by grace — a totally unmerited gift — given to the man apart from his expressing any faith beforehand. If anything, it was Peter’s faith that made the healing possible. He had walked up to the beggar and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (3:6). There is another dimension of faith that helps us understand what Peter meant when he said the beggar had been healed by faith. The believer’s faith does not originate from within the person but comes from the gift that God provides (Romans 4:1711:29Ephesians 1:18-202 Timothy 1:9).

Acted in ignorance (3:17)

As Peter continued speaking, he softened his earlier, more strident rhetoric. Before, he accused his listeners of being murderers. On this occasion, he had a more conciliatory tone. Peter said, “I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders” (3:17). Peter had declared God’s judgment on his compatriots for crucifying the One who had been designated Savior. Here, he stressed God’s foreknowledge of what they would do to Jesus. The “killers” were merely God’s instruments. In the spirit of Jesus, Peter offered God’s mercy to them (Luke 23:34).

The mood has changed from devastating reproof to pleading conciliation. Peter was no longer interested in bringing an accusation against the Jews for their crime. Rather, he hoped his listeners would act on the hopeful message of salvation God was making available to his people Israel. Peter was being charitable to his listeners and their leaders. This is especially evident when we compare this with John’s matter-of-fact condemnation of the people who were responsible for having Jesus crucified (John 9:4115:22).

It may be thought that Peter’s words were surprisingly lenient to people like Caiaphas and the other chief priests, whose determination to have Jesus put to death is underscored in all the Gospels. Nevertheless, here is the proclamation of a divine amnesty, offering a free pardon to all who took part in Jesus’ death, if only they acknowledge their error, confess their sin, and turn to God in repentance. [Bruce, 83.]

Sufferings foretold (3:18, 21)

Continuing his sermon, Peter mentioned a second mitigating factor regarding his listeners’ guilt in the murder of Jesus. Not only did they act in ignorance (3:17), it had been foretold beforehand that Jesus had to suffer at their hands. God was guiding events so that the predictions about the Messiah suffering persecution and martyrdom would be carried out (3:18). God had willed the Servant’s shameful crucifixion (3:21). The Messiah was to suffer and die. This was precisely why the vast majority of Jews would not accept Jesus as Messiah. Jesus of Nazareth had been executed as a common criminal. In the eyes of the Jews, he was under the curse of the Law (Deuteronomy 21:33Galatians 3:13). Thus, they reasoned, he could not have been their Messiah.

Peter was claiming that the reverse was true. It was only because Jesus was crucified that he qualified to be the Savior. He was saying that the witness of the prophets, when properly understood, focused on the Messiah’s suffering. Of course, the Scriptures don’t specifically say that it was the Messiah who would suffer. (Messiah is actually a rare word in the Old Testament.) Isaiah spoke of the Servant (not the Messiah) as the one who would suffer and die for the sins of others. It is not clear that the Jews understood the Servant and the Messiah to be one and the same. This perhaps was where faith entered. One had to accept Jesus’ own claim that his messianic mission was fulfilled in terms of the Servant sufferer.

Nevertheless, Peter claimed that “all the prophets” contain promises of the Messiah’s suffering (3:24). Today, we are unable to find references, literally, in all the prophets to a suffering Messiah. On the other hand, there are passages in several prophets and Psalms that could be taken to refer to a suffering Messiah. [Psalm 22, 69; Jeremiah 11:19Zechariah 13:7Daniel 9:26.]  We can probably understand “all the prophets” in a collective sense. What is written down from one or a few prophets can be attributed to all of them as a class.

Repent and turn to God (3:19)

Throughout his sermon, Peter insisted that Jesus is Savior. He suffered according to God’s plan and the prophets had foretold his suffering. The apostles had seen Jesus’ death and resurrection. At least some of the audience would have heard Jesus teach and heal — and seen him die. Given these facts, Peter preached that only one reaction from the audience is appropriate. Luke summarized it in a sentence: “Repent…and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out” (3:19).

The meaning of “repent” here (as in Peter’s first sermon) must be seen in context. He was speaking to devout Jews who prayed at the temple and kept the Law. For them, repentance was not so much turning away from a sin-filled life. In general, these Jews would have already been following the principles of a good life, based on the Law. What “repent” almost certainly wouldn’t have meant to the Jews was their need to turn away from idols to serve God. Pagan Gentile converts would have to take this step, as they did in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 1:9) and Lystra (14:15). The Jews, however, abhorred idolatry, and they worshipped the one true God.

Nonetheless, Peter did speak here of repentance as a turning to God (1:19). The reason is because all have sinned and come short of the glory of God — Jew and Gentile alike (Romans 3:23). All people must turn to God, even those who have understood and tried to follow the Holy Scriptures (Acts 26:20). To experience reconciliation with God, everyone needs forgiveness, repentance, and the Holy Spirit.

For this audience, “repentance” would mean turning to God by accepting Jesus as Lord, and as the Messiah whom God had chosen (9:35; 11:27). When people acknowledge the Savior, they acknowledge the need for being saved from a condition of sinfulness. Jesus had already paid for their sins, but they would not experience his forgiveness unless they turned to God (3:19).

Times of refreshing

Peter associated the forgiveness of sins with the “times of refreshing” to come (3:19). This is a unique phrase in the New Testament. It has generally been thought to refer to Jesus’ return at a time of general salvation (1:7). Jesus must remain in heaven until that time, that is, “until the time comes for God to restore everything” (3:21). Luke here used his characteristic word dei to show the compelling need for different aspects of God’s plan. Dei means “it is necessary.” Jesus must remain in heaven simply because that is what God has decreed as part of his purpose for humanity.

Peter associated this time of restoration with the future rebirth of Israel, as described in the Old Testament. In many Old Testament prophecies, this rebirth was placed in the context of the Messiah’s coming. In terms of a New Testament understanding, the restoration would occur at the “second coming” of the Messiah in the last days — and then “everything” would be restored.

In one sense, however, the time of renewal began with Jesus’ earthly ministry, and with John the Baptist. [Malachi 4:5Mark 9:12-13Matthew 11:71417:11-13.]  The kingdom of God was with human beings in the presence of the incarnate Jesus. Something of a “restoration” or rebirth is occurring in the world right now. This is the spiritual rebirth or conversion of people through the Holy Spirit, as they are brought into his body, the church.

But the “restitution” or “refreshing” that Peter spoke about is something that occurs at Jesus’ return. This was announced by “his holy prophets.” Until this time, when all the enemies of God are overthrown, Jesus must remain in heaven — at God’s right hand, to use another metaphor (1 Corinthians 15:24-28).

Peter seemed to connect Jesus’ return (the refreshing) to his listeners’ repentance, as though one depends on the other (3:19). But this is trying to force precision out of words that were not meant to provide a precise timetable or causal relationship. Some have suggested that if Christians fail to spread the message of salvation and people refuse to respond to the gospel, then God cannot send Jesus a second time. This would make humans, not God, sovereign. It presupposes that God cannot get his message to the world or accepted unless enough people are interesting in disseminating it — or responding to it.

The book of Revelation, written at the close of the apostolic era, takes a different viewpoint. It describes conditions of the end-time in apocalyptic format. This book insists that Jesus’ return will occur even though the entire world is hostile to God. Indeed, Jesus’ return will be necessary to eliminate this hostility, as well as the world’s rejection of the gospel message. There is no bold talk in Revelation about the church spreading the gospel. Humans will not necessarily even be required to spread the message, for a supernatural messenger of God (“an angel”) will preach the gospel to the world (Revelation 14:6-7). In short, God does not need humans; humans need God.

What Peter probably meant was that his listeners should repent so that the “times of refreshing” could come to them. They will experience this refreshing for themselves when they repent and sense the forgiveness and acceptance of God. When God will send Jesus a second time is a secret he alone holds. When he decrees it is time, Jesus will return and “restore everything” (3:21).


Acts 4:1-12

The Jerusalem Ministry of Peter and John
Acts 3:1-4:22, continued

Sadducees vs. apostles (4:1-2)

Luke now begins to develop an important theme of Acts: the reason for and extent of the Jewish opposition to the gospel message. He tells how the apostles and evangelists who preached about Christ came into conflict with the Jewish religious leaders, first in Jerusalem and then in other major cities of the Roman Empire. As chapter 4 begins, a group of priests and Sadducees enter the scene and interrupt Peter’s speech. (John is mentioned six times in this chapter as participating in the events, but Luke doesn’t record a word of what John said.)

The religious leaders are accompanied by “the captain of the temple guard,” and probably some of his policemen (4:1). The captain and his officers (who were Levites) patrolled the temple grounds and kept order in the temple precincts. For example, they would make sure that no Gentile entered the parts of the temple forbidden to Gentiles. They guarded the temple gates and treasures. The captain, a priest, was an influential person and was next in rank to the high priest. [Josephus, Wars 2:409-10; 6:294.]

The Sadducees, one of the sects or divisions of Judaism, are mentioned three times in Acts (4:1; 5:17; 23:6-8). Most of the high priestly families belonged to this religious party. Every high priest from the reign of Herod until the war of A.D. 66-70 were Sadducees. The high priests held their position by the permission of the Roman government, and they benefited from the status quo. Hence they collaborated with the Roman authorities, and were opposed to any religious or national movement that might threaten their position (John 11:47-48). They were descended from the Hasmoneans [The Hasmoneans were Jewish priest-kings who successfully rebelled against the Seleucid Empire and ruled an independent Jewish kingdom 140-63 b.c.] , and looked back to them as the family who inaugurated the Messianic Age. [Jubilees 23:23-30; 31:9-20; 1 Maccabees 14:4-1541.]

The Sadducees claimed to be guardians of orthodoxy and they opposed innovative teachings. They refused to speculate about angels or demons, and refused to accept the doctrine of the resurrection (Mark 12:18Luke 20:27Acts 23:8). Josephus gives us important details about how this sect’s theology differed from that of the Pharisees. [Josephus, Wars 2:119, 164-166; Antiquities 13:171-173, 297-298; 18:11, 16-17. There is no surviving evidence from the Sadducees themselves about their beliefs; they were apparently all killed in the Jewish War of A.D. 66-70.]

Apostles imprisoned

Given the position and beliefs of the Sadducees, it’s easy to understand why they opposed Jesus and brought about his death. They wrongly perceived him as a revolutionary who would bring reprisals from Rome on the religious leaders and the nation (John 11:48). Not only that, Jesus seemed to be encouraging a fundamental change in the function of the temple (Luke 19:45-48John 4:2123). The Sadducees thought they had gotten rid of Jesus by having him crucified. But here were his followers — the apostles — teaching about Jesus and the resurrection of the dead (4:2). It’s no wonder the Sadducees are exasperated.

For one thing, the apostles are “teaching the people.” The Sadducees thought that teaching should be done only by people who were specially trained and authorized. In their eyes, the apostles are teaching a heresy (the resurrection). To make matters worse, Peter and John are encouraging people to become followers of Jesus, whom the leaders had only recently succeeded in getting out of the way.

To put a stop to this situation, the Sadducees order the temple police to seize Peter and John. The Roman government allowed the Jews limited jurisdiction over temple matters, and this included imprisoning and punishing people who violate its regulations. Because it was late in the day (4:3), the fate of the apostles could not be immediately decided, so they were held in the jail administered by the temple police. In spite of being interrupted in their preaching, the apostles’ message found fertile ground, and many believed the message about Jesus. Luke says “the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand” (4:4).

Luke probably does not mean that 5,000 men were converted that day. Rather, Luke is saying that the believers now totaled about 5,000 men. [Luke used the Greek word andron, which refers specifically to adult males, as opposed to anthropon, which would mean “people.”] The congregation would have included several thousand women and children, too (see Matthew 14:21), perhaps totaling about 20,000. Some commentators say that this figure seems to be way out of proportion to the population of Jerusalem at the time. Estimates of Jerusalem’s population range between 25,000 and 250,000. [Josephus claimed it was over 2.5 million, but this is thought to be far too high (Wars 2:280-283; 6:420-427).]

It’s doubtful that we can fix Jerusalem’s population with any certainty. Doubting Luke’s figure on the basis of dubious population estimates seems pointless. Perhaps Jerusalem’s population was larger than suspected, or a larger portion of the city was converted than assumed. It’s also possible that Luke’s estimate of the number of believers included the country districts and surrounding villages.

Sanhedrin meets (4:5-6)

The next day, the council of Jewish religious and civic elders met to decide what to do with Peter and John (4:5). The Sadducees may have been the official rulers over Jewish affairs, but they were a minority party. They could govern only through the Sanhedrin (synedrion, “council”), the supreme court and senate. Though the Sadducees made up the majority on the council, Josephus tells us they often had to defer to Pharisaic opinion. [Josephus, Antiquities 18:16-17; Acts 5:34.] That’s because the Sadducees were disliked by the common people, while the Pharisees were held in high regard.

The Sanhedrin was composed of three groups of people. The first were the rulers, the high priests. The second were the elders, men of high community standing. The third group was composed of teachers of the law, usually Pharisees or scribes. The Sanhedrin had 71 members. It included the high priest and 70 other influential members of the Jewish religious community. The Sanhedrin had jurisdiction in cases involving matters relevant to Jewish affairs. Where capital punishment was to be administered, the Sanhedrin was required to receive the permission of the Roman procurator (John 18:31).

Luke makes the point that the Sadducean element that was about to condemn the apostles was heavily represented in the Sanhedrin. The early opponents to the gospel message came mainly from the priestly and Sadducean ranks (5:26). Annas the high priest was there, as well as Caiaphas, John, Alexander and other men of the high priest’s family (4:6). Annas was high priest for nine years, from A.D. 6-15. He continued to have great influence for many years after his years in office were over. The New Testament writers show him to be the real power behind the scenes (Luke 3:2John 18:13-24).

Caiaphas was the son-in-law of Annas. He was high priest for 18 years (A.D. 18-36). He had the title of high priest when the events of Acts 4 took place. But Annas was of such influence that he seemed to be making the important decisions. Annas, though he did not then have the title of high priest, may have (as the head of the family) retained the presidency of the Sanhedrin. The ruling high priest was usually the president. [Acts 5:177:19:122:523:2424:1.] Whatever the case, Luke calls Annas the high priest, perhaps in the sense of a high priest emeritus (4:6). Annas is making the decisions the high priest would make, at least as Sanhedrin president. Now, he and the other Sanhedrin members are about to judge the apostles.

By what power? (4:7)

As people interested in political power, it is not strange that the Sanhedrin members ask Peter and John: “By what power or what name did you do this?” (4:7). In other words, “Who said you could do this — who is your leader?”

The apostles are faced with the same issue as Jesus had been. Jesus had also been teaching at the temple when he was confronted by the same general group of chief priests and teachers of the law. They had asked Jesus: “Tell us by what authority you are doing these things…” (Luke 20:1-2). Now, months later, the priests and teachers are faced with “the Jesus question” all over again, even though the ringleader had been killed.

The Sanhedrin is not too pleased with the apostles, but on what grounds are they to punish Peter and John? They can’t accuse the apostles of faking a healing. The evidence of the lame man jumping and leaping is incontrovertible. He is known by everyone, for he was over 40 years old, and had been begging at the temple for many years (4:22). His sudden loss of lameness can’t be explained away as a delusion or secret healing process. Perhaps the apostles have an unlawful agenda in mind (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). Perhaps they are healing through the power of the devil. This is what Jesus was accused of doing (Luke 11:14-20). Thus, the Sanhedrin’s question: “By what power or what name did you do this?” (4:7).

There is an irony in the apostles’ arrest. Peter and John are arrested for teaching about Jesus’ resurrection, but they are questioned about the healing. The Sanhedrin did not want to discuss the resurrection of Jesus, partly because Pharisees were a significant minority of the Sanhedrin, and they believed in a resurrection. Although they did not believe that Jesus had been resurrected, they couldn’t disprove it. Too many strange events surrounding Jesus’ life and death — including the empty tomb — would be sure to come up if they opened up this can of worms. F.F. Bruce wrote:

It is particularly striking that neither on this nor on any subsequent occasion did the authorities take any serious action to disprove the apostles’ central affirmation — the resurrection of Jesus. Had it seemed possible to refute them on this point, how eagerly would the opportunity have been seized!… The body of Jesus had vanished so completely that all the resources at their command could not produce it. The disappearance of his body, to be sure, was far from proving his resurrection, but the production of his body would have effectively disproved it. [Bruce, The Book of Acts,The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Rev. ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 96.]

Healed by the name of Jesus (4:8-10)

Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, answers the Sanhedrin’s questions and accusations by facing the council with the reality of a glorified Christ. This recalls Jesus’ saying, that when they are brought before kings and governors, he will give them a wisdom none of their adversaries can gainsay (Luke 21:12-15).

Peter denies that he and John perform magic, or that they are involved with evil spirits, or that the cure was a hoax. The man was healed by the “name of Jesus Christ,” pure and simple (4:10). Peter pulls no punches, and he accuses the leaders of being responsible for Jesus’ death. He again insists that Jesus had been resurrected, and it is through his power that the lame beggar was healed. In short, Peter’s speech became another declaration of Jesus’ messiahship.

The “stone” rejected (4:11-12)

Peter next cites an Old Testament scripture as a “proof-text” that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Jesus is “the stone you builders rejected…” (Psalm 118:22). Jesus used the same scripture to refer to his messiahship (Mark 12:10-11Luke 20:17-18), setting the example for the apostles. This stone motif is used in other New Testament writings as well. [Romans 9:331 Corinthians 3:11Ephesians 2:201 Peter 2:4-8.]

In its original setting in Psalm 118, the “rejected stone” may have referred to Israel, hated by the nations but chosen by God. The builders who rejected the stone as unfit would most likely be other nations who built their own empires and worshipped their own gods. But Jesus, and Peter here in Acts, brands the Jewish religious leaders as “the builders.” They had built their own religious structures, beliefs and empire, and now they were rejecting the truth about salvation and the One who brought its message, Jesus.

“The cornerstone” is more literally in Greek “head of [the] corner,” kephale gonias. It refers to the capstone or keystone that joins the sides of an arch at the top. This stone is essential for holding the arch together, and is placed at its highest point and head. This capstone or “cornerstone” is essential for completing the arch. Just as there is only one capstone in an arch, Jesus Christ is the unique person who makes salvation possible. Apart from Jesus, there is no spiritual building, or church, because there is no salvation. “Salvation is found in no one else,” insisted Peter, “for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (4:12).


Acts 4:5-12

Sanhedrin meets (4:5-6)

The next day, the council of Jewish religious and civic elders met to decide what to do with Peter and John (4:5). The Sadducees may have been the official rulers over Jewish affairs, but they were a minority party. They could govern only through the Sanhedrin (synedrion, “council”), the supreme court and senate. Though the Sadducees made up the majority on the council, Josephus tells us they often had to defer to Pharisaic opinion. [Josephus, Antiquities 18:16-17; Acts 5:34.] That’s because the Sadducees were disliked by the common people, while the Pharisees were held in high regard.

The Sanhedrin was composed of three groups of people. The first were the rulers, the high priests. The second were the elders, men of high community standing. The third group was composed of teachers of the law, usually Pharisees or scribes. The Sanhedrin had 71 members. It included the high priest and 70 other influential members of the Jewish religious community. The Sanhedrin had jurisdiction in cases involving matters relevant to Jewish affairs. Where capital punishment was to be administered, the Sanhedrin was required to receive the permission of the Roman procurator (John 18:31).

Luke makes the point that the Sadducean element that was about to condemn the apostles was heavily represented in the Sanhedrin. The early opponents to the gospel message came mainly from the priestly and Sadducean ranks (5:26). Annas the high priest was there, as well as Caiaphas, John, Alexander and other men of the high priest’s family (4:6). Annas was high priest for nine years, from A.D. 6-15. He continued to have great influence for many years after his years in office were over. The New Testament writers show him to be the real power behind the scenes (Luke 3:2John 18:13-24).

Caiaphas was the son-in-law of Annas. He was high priest for 18 years (A.D. 18-36). He had the title of high priest when the events of Acts 4 took place. But Annas was of such influence that he seemed to be making the important decisions. Annas, though he did not then have the title of high priest, may have (as the head of the family) retained the presidency of the Sanhedrin. The ruling high priest was usually the president. [Acts 5:177:19:122:523:2424:1.] Whatever the case, Luke calls Annas the high priest, perhaps in the sense of a high priest emeritus (4:6). Annas is making the decisions the high priest would make, at least as Sanhedrin president. Now, he and the other Sanhedrin members are about to judge the apostles.

By what power? (4:7)

As people interested in political power, it is not strange that the Sanhedrin members ask Peter and John: “By what power or what name did you do this?” (4:7). In other words, “Who said you could do this — who is your leader?”

The apostles are faced with the same issue as Jesus had been. Jesus had also been teaching at the temple when he was confronted by the same general group of chief priests and teachers of the law. They had asked Jesus: “Tell us by what authority you are doing these things…” (Luke 20:1-2). Now, months later, the priests and teachers are faced with “the Jesus question” all over again, even though the ringleader had been killed.

The Sanhedrin is not too pleased with the apostles, but on what grounds are they to punish Peter and John? They can’t accuse the apostles of faking a healing. The evidence of the lame man jumping and leaping is incontrovertible. He is known by everyone, for he was over 40 years old, and had been begging at the temple for many years (4:22). His sudden loss of lameness can’t be explained away as a delusion or secret healing process. Perhaps the apostles have an unlawful agenda in mind (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). Perhaps they are healing through the power of the devil. This is what Jesus was accused of doing (Luke 11:14-20). Thus, the Sanhedrin’s question: “By what power or what name did you do this?” (4:7).

There is an irony in the apostles’ arrest. Peter and John are arrested for teaching about Jesus’ resurrection, but they are questioned about the healing. The Sanhedrin did not want to discuss the resurrection of Jesus, partly because Pharisees were a significant minority of the Sanhedrin, and they believed in a resurrection. Although they did not believe that Jesus had been resurrected, they couldn’t disprove it. Too many strange events surrounding Jesus’ life and death — including the empty tomb — would be sure to come up if they opened up this can of worms. F.F. Bruce wrote:

It is particularly striking that neither on this nor on any subsequent occasion did the authorities take any serious action to disprove the apostles’ central affirmation — the resurrection of Jesus. Had it seemed possible to refute them on this point, how eagerly would the opportunity have been seized!… The body of Jesus had vanished so completely that all the resources at their command could not produce it. The disappearance of his body, to be sure, was far from proving his resurrection, but the production of his body would have effectively disproved it. [Bruce, The Book of Acts,The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Rev. ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 96.]

Healed by the name of Jesus (4:8-10)

Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, answers the Sanhedrin’s questions and accusations by facing the council with the reality of a glorified Christ. This recalls Jesus’ saying, that when they are brought before kings and governors, he will give them a wisdom none of their adversaries can gainsay (Luke 21:12-15).

Peter denies that he and John perform magic, or that they are involved with evil spirits, or that the cure was a hoax. The man was healed by the “name of Jesus Christ,” pure and simple (4:10). Peter pulls no punches, and he accuses the leaders of being responsible for Jesus’ death. He again insists that Jesus had been resurrected, and it is through his power that the lame beggar was healed. In short, Peter’s speech became another declaration of Jesus’ messiahship.

The “stone” rejected (4:11-12)

Peter next cites an Old Testament scripture as a “proof-text” that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Jesus is “the stone you builders rejected…” (Psalm 118:22). Jesus used the same scripture to refer to his messiahship (Mark 12:10-11Luke 20:17-18), setting the example for the apostles. This stone motif is used in other New Testament writings as well. [Romans 9:331 Corinthians 3:11Ephesians 2:201 Peter 2:4-8.]

In its original setting in Psalm 118, the “rejected stone” may have referred to Israel, hated by the nations but chosen by God. The builders who rejected the stone as unfit would most likely be other nations who built their own empires and worshipped their own gods. But Jesus, and Peter here in Acts, brands the Jewish religious leaders as “the builders.” They had built their own religious structures, beliefs and empire, and now they were rejecting the truth about salvation and the One who brought its message, Jesus.

“The cornerstone” is more literally in Greek “head of [the] corner,” kephale gonias. It refers to the capstone or keystone that joins the sides of an arch at the top. This stone is essential for holding the arch together, and is placed at its highest point and head. This capstone or “cornerstone” is essential for completing the arch. Just as there is only one capstone in an arch, Jesus Christ is the unique person who makes salvation possible. Apart from Jesus, there is no spiritual building, or church, because there is no salvation. “Salvation is found in no one else,” insisted Peter, “for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (4:12).


Acts 4:8-13

Healed by the name of Jesus (4:8-10)

Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, answers the Sanhedrin’s questions and accusations by facing the council with the reality of a glorified Christ. This recalls Jesus’ saying, that when they are brought before kings and governors, he will give them a wisdom none of their adversaries can gainsay (Luke 21:12-15).

Peter denies that he and John perform magic, or that they are involved with evil spirits, or that the cure was a hoax. The man was healed by the “name of Jesus Christ,” pure and simple (4:10). Peter pulls no punches, and he accuses the leaders of being responsible for Jesus’ death. He again insists that Jesus had been resurrected, and it is through his power that the lame beggar was healed. In short, Peter’s speech became another declaration of Jesus’ messiahship.

The “stone” rejected (4:11-12)

Peter next cites an Old Testament scripture as a “proof-text” that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Jesus is “the stone you builders rejected…” (Psalm 118:22). Jesus used the same scripture to refer to his messiahship (Mark 12:10-11Luke 20:17-18), setting the example for the apostles. This stone motif is used in other New Testament writings as well. [Romans 9:331 Corinthians 3:11Ephesians 2:201 Peter 2:4-8.]

In its original setting in Psalm 118, the “rejected stone” may have referred to Israel, hated by the nations but chosen by God. The builders who rejected the stone as unfit would most likely be other nations who built their own empires and worshipped their own gods. But Jesus, and Peter here in Acts, brands the Jewish religious leaders as “the builders.” They had built their own religious structures, beliefs and empire, and now they were rejecting the truth about salvation and the One who brought its message, Jesus.

“The cornerstone” is more literally in Greek “head of [the] corner,” kephale gonias. It refers to the capstone or keystone that joins the sides of an arch at the top. This stone is essential for holding the arch together, and is placed at its highest point and head. This capstone or “cornerstone” is essential for completing the arch. Just as there is only one capstone in an arch, Jesus Christ is the unique person who makes salvation possible. Apart from Jesus, there is no spiritual building, or church, because there is no salvation. “Salvation is found in no one else,” insisted Peter, “for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (4:12).

Unschooled apostles (4:13-14)

Peter is using some masterful biblical argumentation, usually reserved for trained rabbis. The Sanhedrin is astonished by this because the apostles are “unschooled, ordinary men” (4:13). People expressed the same surprise about Jesus: “How did this man get such learning without having been taught?” (John 7:15). The Jewish leaders don’t necessarily regard Peter and John as ignorant and illiterate. The apostles are considered “unschooled” in terms of rabbinic training, that is, without professional qualifications. They are “ordinary” (Greek, idiotai) in the sense of being “commoners” or “laymen,” or “untrained” in matters of Jewish law. The religious leaders fault the people for their lack of expertise and understanding of Torah (which ironically means that their teachers were failing to do their job). In one case, the Pharisees said of those ordinary folks who believed in Christ: “this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them” (John 7:49).

Meanwhile, the Sanhedrin is getting nowhere with Peter and John. In fact, the council members are to some degree on the defensive. The apostles are using sophisticated rabbinic reasoning to force a consideration of Jesus as Messiah. How like Jesus they seemed in their ability to parry questions and avoid traps! It dawned on the council that the apostles must have learned the “tricks” of argumentation from their teacher — and so they take note “that these men had been with Jesus” (4:13).

The council has another problem: That healed beggar is still there. But why is he there the next day? Had he been arrested? Did he want to be a witness for the apostles? Luke doesn’t tell us. Whatever the case, the beggar’s presence is evidence of Jesus’ healing power. In a similar situation, Jesus had healed a man who had been born blind. His very presence reminded the religious community that Jesus had a power that could not be denied (John 9). Now another man born with an infirmity is healed. And he is here, still a witness. How could the Sanhedrin punish the apostles when the proof of Jesus’ power is plainly in their presence?


Acts 4:13-21

Unschooled apostles (4:13-14)

Peter is using some masterful biblical argumentation, usually reserved for trained rabbis. The Sanhedrin is astonished by this because the apostles are “unschooled, ordinary men” (4:13). People expressed the same surprise about Jesus: “How did this man get such learning without having been taught?” (John 7:15). The Jewish leaders don’t necessarily regard Peter and John as ignorant and illiterate. The apostles are considered “unschooled” in terms of rabbinic training, that is, without professional qualifications. They are “ordinary” (Greek, idiotai) in the sense of being “commoners” or “laymen,” or “untrained” in matters of Jewish law. The religious leaders fault the people for their lack of expertise and understanding of Torah (which ironically means that their teachers were failing to do their job). In one case, the Pharisees said of those ordinary folks who believed in Christ: “this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them” (John 7:49).

Meanwhile, the Sanhedrin is getting nowhere with Peter and John. In fact, the council members are to some degree on the defensive. The apostles are using sophisticated rabbinic reasoning to force a consideration of Jesus as Messiah. How like Jesus they seemed in their ability to parry questions and avoid traps! It dawned on the council that the apostles must have learned the “tricks” of argumentation from their teacher — and so they take note “that these men had been with Jesus” (4:13).

The council has another problem: That healed beggar is still there. But why is he there the next day? Had he been arrested? Did he want to be a witness for the apostles? Luke doesn’t tell us. Whatever the case, the beggar’s presence is evidence of Jesus’ healing power. In a similar situation, Jesus had healed a man who had been born blind. His very presence reminded the religious community that Jesus had a power that could not be denied (John 9). Now another man born with an infirmity is healed. And he is here, still a witness. How could the Sanhedrin punish the apostles when the proof of Jesus’ power is plainly in their presence?

The Sanhedrin confers (4:15-18)

The Sanhedrin members withdraw into a private session to hammer out a plan regarding the apostles. They see the quandary they are in, and admit that Peter and John “have performed a notable sign, and we cannot deny it” (4:16).

Some readers today wonder, How did Luke find out what happened in the private meeting? When 70 people are at the meeting, it is difficult to keep the proceedings a secret — someone is going to talk about it, and eventually one of those people “in the know” became a Christian. Perhaps the drift of the discussion was inferred from what the council said when Peter and John were brought back. Perhaps Saul (Paul) himself was at the council, and he could have told Luke what happened. It seems that John himself had friends in the high priestly family, and he could have also learned what happened. There are many ways for “secret” information to be made public.

The apostles claim that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, and this has been publicly confirmed by the healing of the lame man. The healing was done in Jesus’ name, and obviously a dead man cannot do anything. Luke Timothy Johnson says:

The leaders are upset because the apostles are proclaiming “in Jesus the resurrection of the dead” (4:2). Yet they cannot deny the evidence that the resurrection power is at work through the apostles. The man has been cured: they see him standing there, they acknowledge that the whole city knows about it. And yet when they ask “what power or name” made him whole, and Peter answers that it is the power of the resurrected Jesus, they refuse to acknowledge it. [Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina series, volume 5 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1992), 81.]

No wonder the Sanhedrin members ask themselves, in perplexity: “What are we going to do with these men?” (4:16).

Warned not to speak (4:17-22)

The council decides to warn the apostles not to speak about Jesus again. If Peter and John do so, they will be in violation of the law. The council is providing itself with a legal basis for further action — and it will soon be needed, as we discover in the next chapter. Even now, it must be obvious to the Sanhedrin that the apostles will not go away quietly. When the council calls them in and commands them “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus,” they are rebuffed (4:18). Peter and John tell the Sanhedrin that they will obey God, not the Sanhedrin. They will continue to witness to Jesus.

This brings more threats from the Sanhedrin, but they can’t punish the apostles because the people are praising God for a miracle. This same council of chief priests and elders had faced a similar problem in the case of Jesus. They couldn’t punish him openly, for as they said, “There may be a riot among the people” (Matthew 26:5).


Acts 4:22-31

The Church in Jerusalem (Acts 4:23-5:16)

The believers’ prayer (4:23)

So far in Acts, Luke has described Peter’s preaching to the Jews of Jerusalem. Luke now shifts his focus to give us a glimpse of the apostles’ relationship to the Jerusalem church. We see a praying and giving church, full of faith. The apostles (Peter particularly) come in the power of God, performing miraculous signs and wonders.

The next section begins in 4:23 with Peter and John being released by the Sanhedrin. The two apostles then return to the church and tell the congregation about their persecution. The response of the church is to pray about the crisis (4:24). They perceive the danger to themselves, and to their mission of spreading the gospel. The believers realize that they cannot face the power of the Sanhedrin on their own. So they put their faith in God as the Sovereign Lord and the Creator of all. This is how they address him in their communal prayer. The disciples appeal to his power to deliver the church, much in the way that King Hezekiah prayed for the deliverance of Jerusalem (Isaiah 37:16-20).

David’s prayer in Psalm 2 (Acts 4:25-27)

Luke provides a summary of how the church prayed. The congregation offers their prayer based on Psalm 2:1-2. The first thing we notice about the prayer is that God is said to have spoken it “by the Holy Spirit through the mouth” of David (Acts 4:25). David may have written the words, Luke was saying, but they were guided by the Holy Spirit.

The church understands that the threats of the council are not directed against them personally. That’s clear from their appeal to Psalm 2, which speaks of nations and kings plotting against God and his Anointed One. The Jewish persecution of the apostles was actually aimed at God and his Messiah. Psalm 2 refers to the Messiah, the Anointed One. There is some indication that by Jesus’ day this psalm was being interpreted by Jews as referring to a coming deliverer from David’s line. The church applied the psalm to those who had conspired against Jesus, who was God’s Anointed One (4:25-26 with 4:27). For the church, the unholy conspiracy involved in Jesus’ crucifixion consisted of Herod (“kings of the earth”), Pilate (“the rulers”), the Romans (“the nations”), and the people of Israel in Jerusalem (“the peoples”).

This is what is called a “pesher” (from Hebrew peser, “interpretation”). We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls the pesher method of interpreting Scripture was used in the Qumran community. The interpreter takes a text such as Psalm 2:1-2, which in context refers to ancient times, and identifies it with a contemporary figure and/or situation. He said, in effect, “This is the event and the people this scripture is referring to.”

This method of interpretation was common within Judaism during Jesus’ day, and was used by the early church. It was based on the belief that Scripture, reflecting God’s purpose and mind, had cosmic significance for all times and circumstances. It assumes that the original writers (usually prophets) did not understand the full significance of what they wrote about because they were far removed from the events to which their writings referred (1 Peter 1:10-12). The real meanings hidden in the text can be unraveled only by a divinely inspired person (or group) living in the time of the actual events. (Some modern interpreters do something similar, trying to identify contemporary events with various biblical prophecies; the result is almost always wrong.)

Prayer for boldness (4:28-30)

In this case, the church is saying that Jesus’ death and the persecution of God’s people were foretold in Scripture. Thus, it is happening with the knowledge of God, who decided beforehand that these things would occur (4:28).

The Jerusalem church’s prayer has a selfless aspect. They do not ask for relief from persecution nor judgment against their oppressors. Rather, the church wants to be given boldness to preach the gospel. They ask God to continue to heal, and perform miraculous signs and wonders, so the gospel will have attentive ears (4:29). Of course, the signs and wonders are to occur “through the name of…Jesus” (4:30). In Acts, all things are done through “the name.” The gospel is fearlessly preached (9:27), people are baptized (8:16), sins are forgiven (10:43) and demons are cast out (16:18) — all in Jesus’ name.

The idiom “name of Jesus Christ” is Luke’s expression of the presence of Christ, but not in any magical way. Rather, the preached word unleashes the power of the resurrected Christ so that the gap between the earthly Jesus and the resurrected Lord is bridged by the Spirit. [William Willimon, Acts: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox, 1988), page 13.]

In this instance, God answers the church’s prayer with resounding certainty. Their meeting place shakes as with an earthquake (4:31). Quakes often marked the sign of God’s presence in Scripture. [Acts 16:26Exodus 19:18Psalm 114:7Isaiah 6:4Ezekiel 38:19Joel 3:16Amos 9:5Haggai 2:6.] In this case, God is signifying that his presence will be with the believers as they fulfill the commission to preach the gospel of salvation. God answers the Jerusalem church’s prayer for boldness by filling them with the Holy Spirit. The disciples already had the Holy Spirit as a life-changing force. But now they receive a special gift of confidence to proclaim the word of God with added conviction.


Acts 4:32-35

Believers share possessions (4:32-35)

Luke next returns to a subject he introduced earlier (2:44-45) — the sharing of possessions among the believers. In the community of believers at Jerusalem “no one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had” (4:32). Earlier we were told that the believers “had everything in common” (2:44). They sold possessions and goods, giving “to anyone who had need” (2:45). In this snapshot of church life, Luke illustrates the nature and extent of the Jerusalem believers’ concern for one another.

For Luke as well as the early Christians, being filled with the Holy Spirit not only concerned proclaiming the Word of God but also sharing possessions with the needy because of believers’ oneness in Christ. [Richard Longenecker, “Acts,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9 (ed. Frank E. Gaebelein; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), 309.]

Luke illustrates the relationship of gospel-preaching to giving by inserting verse 33 into the middle of the discussion about the believers’ shared possessions. This verse speaks of the great power by which the apostles testified to the resurrection of Christ. It might appear to be misplaced, since it discusses a different topic, but it isn’t.

Luke intends to place the apostles into the middle of the community’s life, so that “authority” and “possessions” will again reinforce each other. The “great power” of their proclamation is matched by their place in the collection and distribution of the community goods. [Johnson, 86.]

Luke indicates that most wealthy believers had a remarkably selfless attitude toward their possessions. They regard their estates as being at the disposal of the community when necessary. No doubt even those of limited means gave what they could to assist less fortunate brothers and sisters. Because of this attitude, “there were no needy persons among” the church members at Jerusalem (4:34).

“From time to time” — when the occasion warranted it — affluent members “who owned land or houses” would sell pieces of property and give the money to the apostles (4:35). The apostles in turn “distributed to anyone who had need.” This donating of resources to a common church fund was voluntary. The practice, in various forms, was known among other Jews, especially the Essene sect. Josephus points out that the Essenes required their members to have all property in common — at least as an idealized principle. He wrote that, “It is a law among them [the Essenes], that those who come to them must let what they have be common to the whole order — insomuch, that among them all there is no appearance of poverty or excess of riches, but every one’s possessions are intermingled with every other’s possessions.” [Josephus, Wars 2:122.]

The Jerusalem believers are generous in sharing what they have with other members. However, their sharing is on a voluntary basis; it is not “Christian communism.” There is probably a cultural-religious reason why the Jerusalem community has a common fund to help the needy. At this early date, the believers seem to consider themselves as a righteous remnant within Israel. They hold firmly to their national religious practices and institutions, and they feel strongly about certain promises in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the Torah they read, “There need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you” (Deuteronomy 15:4).

Other Jewish religious groups, such as the Essenes, also thought of themselves in terms of a remnant. They, too, expressed their spiritual oneness by sharing their goods. The Jerusalem church is following cultural norms in sharing their goods on a voluntary basis.

Perhaps more importantly, the church knows of Jesus’ command that mutual love should be its distinctive characteristic (John 13:34-3515:12). Thus, the believers feel a deep responsibility to care for the physical needs of their spiritual brothers and sisters. This continued to be a concern of the church (Galatians 2:9-10). The early church apparently expected Jesus to return soon. They probably thought that the gospel would be preached to all the Jews around the Roman world in a matter of years, perhaps only one or two decades. Then, “the end” would come. The disciples are therefore not concerned about their long-range needs. The kingdom of God is coming soon, and personal resources are to be used now instead of being stored up.

However, the ideal of generosity that the Jerusalem church attempts to reach in the sharing of goods is soon interrupted. God allows a persecution to come on this congregation that causes its members to be scattered throughout Judea and Samaria (8:1). And as it turns out, perhaps some members gave too much too quickly, resulting in an impoverished Jerusalem church. We get indications from Acts and Paul’s writings that the believers in Jerusalem were quite poor in later years. [Acts 11:27-3024:17Romans 15:26Galatians 2:10.] This is not to belittle what they did, and in fact their selflessness was no doubt pleasing to God. The later poverty of the Jerusalem church became a blessing to people who were able to help them (2 Corinthians 9:11). True discipleship is sometimes very costly.

Commentaries on Acts of the Apostles

We should not picture all Jerusalem church members as placing all their property in a common fund. This congregation did not form a communal society that required all possessions to be put in a common pot. Donations were given on a voluntary basis. The church members lived in their own homes (2:46; 12:12), and thus would have their own household possessions. They were married and had families (1 Corinthians 9:5Acts 5:1-11). The well-to-do among the Jerusalem church “from time to time” sold property (4:34). They did not simply sell everything and pool all the money. Rather, they sold it off piece by piece, as needed. They continued to live in their own houses but were willing to give to the community when needs arose.


Acts 4:36-37

Barnabas sells a field (4:36-37)

Luke next introduces a man named Joseph, a Levite (4:36). He was named Barnabas by the apostles, which Luke says means “Son of Encouragement.” The problem is that the word Barnabasactually means something like “Son of Nebo” (Bar-nabas). Luke’s interpretation of the name has been translated as “Son of exhortation,” or “of consolation” or “of encouragement.” “Son of Encouragement” certainly fits the character of Barnabas (9:27; 11:23; 12:25; 15:37).

The family of Barnabas originally came from Cyprus, and he may have owned property on the island, but he has close ties to Judea. John Mark is his cousin (Colossians 4:10), and he apparently lives with his mother in her home in Jerusalem (12:12). Barnabas will be an important figure in Luke’s story of the church’s expansion. He appears to be a link between the Jewish and Gentile worlds. [Acts 9:2711:22-3013:1-14:2815:2-41222,36-411 Corinthians 9:6.] Barnabas is introduced here for two reasons. We are alerted to his future role in the spread of the gospel. He is also a fitting example of how the Jerusalem believers share their possessions.

Barnabas “sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet” (4:37). He is held up for special commendation in this regard, showing that the selling of property and donating the proceeds was voluntary. It was not required of all church members. Barnabas will later play a key role in mediating between a zealous Paul and a skeptical Jerusalem church that does not trust him (9:25). He will also be sent as an emissary to look into matters in the Antioch church. There he will put the stamp of approval for the preaching the gospel to Gentiles in Antioch (9:22-23). Luke assures his readers that Barnabas is submissive to the Twelve, and he can be trusted.

Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012


Acts 5:1-26

The Jerusalem Church, continued

Ananias and Sapphira (5:1)

In chapter 4, Luke painted an idealistic portrait of the Jerusalem church as a congregation of faithful (4:23-31) and loving (4:32-35) believers. He cited the example of Barnabas, who epitomized both the love and faith of this congregation (4:36-37). But Luke wants to give his readers a more complete view of the situation in the church. In the beginning of chapter 5 Luke provides an example that showed the church to be less-than-perfect.

Luke recounts what must have been a well-known but tragic story of Ananias and his wife Sapphira, who lied to the Holy Spirit (5:3). The story (5:1-11) actually continues Luke’s account of how the believers shared their possessions, which he ended with the example of a generous Barnabas. But in the case of Ananias and Sapphira, we see another side of the church.

What Luke did was present two cases that stand in opposition to each other. Barnabas is a concerned, faithful and a true disciple; Ananias and Sapphira are selfish, faithless liars. The incident shows that the church, even in its earliest days, was not a community of perfect people. Perhaps Luke tells this story to warn his readers not to overestimate the spiritual perfection of the first believers. The example also serves as a warning to the church. The best-intentioned good works of human beings — which the generous giving illustrated — can have unintended negative side effects. In short, the church is always an imperfect, sinning body that daily needs the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.

Kept part of the money (5:2-4)

The problem of Ananias and Sapphira is that they wanted to receive a reputation for a greater personal sacrifice than they actually made. The church’s well-intentioned sharing of goods probably led to a considerable amount of subtle pressure on members to make donations. Perhaps Ananias and Sapphira got caught up in a band-wagon effect. The couple wanted to appear as outstanding church members, but they didn’t want to part with their possessions. In order to have both, they pretended to give the full price of the sale of their property to the apostles. But they secretly kept part of the money for themselves. Thus, they tried to deceive the community.

Before we go on, Luke allows us to once more understand that the Jerusalem church was not practicing mandatory communism. Peter tells Ananias: “Didn’t it [the land] belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?” (5:4). Ananias was perfectly free to keep or sell his property as he thought fit. If he sold his property, he could have kept all the money for himself. The sin of Ananias was not in keeping his money, but in lying to the community, and hence, to the Holy Spirit.

The sin of which Ananias was guilty was hypocrisy, a sin which received from Jesus the most scathing condemnation. Ananias was under no obligation to sell his land at all, or to hand over the proceeds, but having done both he alleged that all the money he had obtained was now being given magnanimously for the relief of the poorer members of the community, whereas in fact he had slyly retrained part of it for his own use. His wife as a party to the fraud. [E. William Neil, The Acts of the Apostles, The New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), page 94.]

Luke tells us that Ananias with the full knowledge of his wife was keeping “part of the money for himself” (5:2). The verb translated “kept back” (Greek, nosphizein) occurs rarely in the New Testament (Acts 5:23Titus 2:10). But its meaning is clear. The Septuagint uses the same root verb to describe Achan’s stealing part of the plunder from Jericho. God said that the spoils were sacred and should be placed into the treasury (Joshua 6:18-197:111). By taking some of the plunder for himself, Achan had acted unfaithfully — and had stolen and lied.

Perhaps Luke purposely uses the same verb (nosphizein) to describe the action of Ananias, so that readers who know the Old Testament examples would make the comparison and learn the lesson. William Neil writes, “The story of Ananias is to the book of Acts what the story of Achan is to the book of Joshua. In both narratives an act of deceit interrupts the victorious progress of the people of God.” [Ibid.]

Both incidents draw an immediate and extreme judgment of God. The advance of ancient Israel was stopped by Achan’s sin. Now the sin of Ananias threatens to stop the progress of the gospel and destroy the integrity of the community.

The Jerusalem church clearly sees the lesson in the death of Ananias and Sapphira (5:11). It is richly schooled in the Holy Scriptures and would immediately see the connection between Ananias and Achan. In each case, the sin must be removed so the community can move forward. There are differences between the two accounts, and we should not press the analogy too far. For example, Achan confessed his bad deed (Joshua 7:19) and was stoned to death (verse 25). Neither was true in the case of Ananias.

Lied to the Holy Spirit (5:3-4)

Somehow Peter learns that Ananias kept part of the money, even though he claims to have given all of it. Peter then confronts Ananias with his deceit. On one level, Peter is shown as having power to see into human hearts. He is able to perceive Ananias’ motivation. In the same way, Peter later perceives that Simon the Samaritan was full of bitterness (8:23). Luke is portraying the apostles as having the same ability as Jesus to grasp what humans are thinking in terms of whether their thoughts are godly or satanic. In his Gospel, Luke points out Jesus’ ability in this regard on several occasions. [Luke 5:227:39-409:46-4724:37-38.]

However, we shouldn’t overstate Peter’s omniscience. It’s possible that others in the church had learned about the deceit of Ananias and Sapphira, and Peter learned about it from them. After checking out the allegation and being sure of its truthfulness, he confronts first Ananias and then Sapphira with the deceit.

Ananias’ deceit is the result of Satan filling his heart (5:3). Luke had previously described the betrayal of Jesus by Judas as Satan entering his heart (Luke 22:3). The couple’s fraudulent action was also defined as lying to and testing the Holy Spirit (5:3), perhaps in the sense of seeing how much they could get away with. Similarly, the ancient Israelites in the wilderness were guilty of trying to test God (Exodus 17:2Deuteronomy 6:16). To lie to the Spirit is the same as lying to God and the risen Christ. Peter says that Ananias lied to the Holy Spirit (5:3) and to God (5:4), and this is the same as testing “the Spirit of the Lord” (5:9). The three are equated as being one and the same: God, Spirit, and the Lord—Father, Spirit, and the Son.

Throughout Acts, Luke emphasizes that the Holy Spirit is guiding the new church at every turn. But Ananias and Sapphira’s lie and greed threaten to undercut this. God therefore shows that the Holy Spirit is present with the church, and that this has solemn implications for the disciples. Christians are warned to be careful in how they relate to the Holy Spirit. They can “grieve the Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 4:30) and “do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19). These are sins that should be avoided. They are sins for which Christians find forgiveness in Christ, but we should not minimize such affronts to the Spirit. They are serious.

As in the case of Judas, we are not in a position to judge the ultimate fate of Ananias and Sapphira. Perhaps this incident shows God’s supreme judgment on the couple in this life, a tragic discipline, but not a final condemnation (1 Corinthians 5:511:30). The life of the couple is taken, but we do not know whether they rejected salvation itself. The lesson for us is simply that we should not challenge or test God.

While the real sin of Ananias and Sapphira is lying to the Holy Spirit, it is over financial issues that the problem comes to a head. The story is about money and greed. Luke often deals with economic issues and how they relate to the Christian. It is Luke who gives us parables that deal with the proper use of money. They include the parables of the Debtors (Luke 7:41-43); the Good Samaritan (10:29-37); the Rich Fool (12:16-21); the Unjust Steward (16:1-8); the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19-31); and the Pounds (19:11-27). Luke writes of the rich young nobleman who chooses riches over Jesus (Luke 18:18-23) and the widow who donates to God all that she had to live on (Luke 21:1-4).

Later, Luke notes that a riot occurs after Paul’s preaching interferes with some business interests (19:21-41). Simon the Samaritan reveals his true heart when he tries to buy the Spirit with money (8:9-24). In Macedonia, Paul and Silas are thrown in jail after depriving some slave owners of their means of livelihood (16:16-34). He is kept in jail because Felix wants a bribe (24:26).

Ananias and Sapphire die (5:5-10)

The story of Ananias and Sapphira ends on a tragic note. As soon as Peter finishes telling Ananias the enormity of his sin, Ananias dies (5:5). While Luke doesn’t say that God struck him down, this is what the context implies. The death of Ananias is meant to be seen as a divine judgment on his sin of lying to the Spirit. Luke does not say the sentence of death came from Peter, as some claim. Luke wants us to see his death not as the judgment of Peter, but of God. Peter probably intends to rebuke Ananias for his terrible sin, and hope for his repentance. Peter is probably as shocked as we are that Ananias drops dead before his eyes. “Great fear seized all who heard what had happened” (5:5) — and that probably includes Peter.

Immediately after Ananias dies, his body is wrapped and buried. His wife Sapphira, unaware of what happened to her husband, arrives about three hours later, and is confronted by Peter. He questions her about the amount of the proceeds of the sale, no doubt hoping that she will be honest. But when he asks her whether she and her husband sold the land for the amount they had handed over, she says yes (5:8). She repeats her husband’s falsehood. Peter, knowing God’s judgment on Ananias, probably feels confident that the same one awaits Sapphira. He tells her that the men who buried her husband would also carry her out (5:9), and Sapphira dies (5:10).

The account of this couple’s death, especially that of Sapphira, has puzzled and even offended many commentators. Richard Longenecker has summarized their objections:

Probably no account in Acts has provoked more wrath from critics than this one has. Commentators have complained about the difficulty of accepting the death of both husband and wife under such circumstances and have questioned Peter’s ethics in not giving them an opportunity for repentance and in not telling Sapphira of her husband’s death. Even more difficult for many is the way the story portrays Peter, who appears to be without the compassion or restraint of his Lord. Jesus’ relations with even Judas, whose sin was a thousand times more odious, certainly were not on this level. Many have felt it impossible for a leader of the early church to have shown such harshness over a relatively “slight” offence and have doubted that the church would have wanted to preserve such an account. Many, therefore, have taken this to be a fictitious story. [Longenecker, 314.]

The problem is partially solved if we do not read into the story things that are not there. The situation was likely the following. Peter learns from someone in the community that Ananias and Sapphira are trying to pass off part of the sale price as the whole amount. Ananias and Sapphira may have told someone of this, or it may have been obvious to someone who knew about real estate values in the area.

Peter does not necessarily need any special knowledge in the matter. After finding out the truth of the accusation, he is naturally indignant about this attempted deception, which blights the community spirit. As a spiritual leader, he goes to Ananias to reprove him for lying, in effect, to the Holy Spirit. There is no indication that Peter intends to pronounce a curse of death on him. He is probably as stunned as anyone else when Ananias drops dead after the rebuke. However, the lesson is not lost on Peter. He surmises that God caused this, and he concludes that the same judgment will befall Sapphira, a co-conspirator. Her only hope is to admit the truth, but when she does not, Peter says that she will experience the same result as her husband. Peter simply tells her what her fate will be, and she dies. Peter is not personally handing out a curse of death to either husband or wife. Ananias and Sapphira die because God, not Peter, causes it.

From time to time in the Old Testament, God acts to carry out a sudden sentence of death on various individuals. A man named Uzzah is killed for violating the law about touching the ark (2 Samuel 6:3-7). Two sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, are struck down for offering strange fire in the tabernacle (Leviticus 10:3). Even their father Aaron is told not to mourn for them. We are used to God dealing sharply with the sinful and rebellious Israelites. But we may be shocked that Ananias and Sapphira are struck down so abruptly and with finality. Perhaps we can understand why this happened if we remember the context of the times. The New Testament church began with the unmistakable power of God’s Spirit. The fledgling community is barely getting off the ground when its integrity is threatened by selfish deceit. It needs to learn that sin is no trifling matter. How can the church be an example of godliness and good works, if greed and lying are allowed to run rampant in the community?

The way Ananias and Sapphira attempted to reach their goals was so diametrically opposed to the whole thrust of the gospel that to allow it to go unchallenged would have set the entire mission of the church off course. Like the act of Achan, this episode was pivotal in the life and mission of God’s people, for the whole enterprise was threatened at its start. [Ibid.]

The death of Ananias and Sapphira serves as a powerful example of the presence of God in the community of believers. “Great fear seized all who heard what had happened” (5:5). After this, no one would be tempted to gain a reputation for generosity by lying about it — although before this, the temptation was probably not unique to Ananias and Sapphira.

Hebrews tells us that while God is infinite love and has tremendous patience, he also judges his people (Hebrews 10:31). As another example, Paul tells the Corinthians to excommunicate a man who was having sexual relations with his stepmother. The hope was that he would repent (which he did) and re-enter the community of the saints (1 Corinthians 5:5).

Ananias and Sapphira are killed because they do not repent. They are given an opportunity to tell Peter the correct amount of the sale. But they persist in their lie. But the account says nothing of the couple’s future salvation. We have no way to answer the question of their fate except to say it is in God’s hands.

The church of God (5:11)

When Sapphira dies, the meaning of God’s judgment on this couple is not lost on the church. Luke again writes of the effect of the tragic event, saying, “Great fear seized the whole church” (5:11). Here, in the context of a crisis in the Christian community in Jerusalem, Luke uses the Greek word ekklesia (“church”) for the first time to designate the congregation of God’s people. From here on out, Luke uses it to define both the universal body of Christian believers and local congregations. The same usage occurs in Paul’s epistles. [Acts 7:388:19:3111:2213:114:2315:224116:519:324020:28. For examples from Paul, see 1 Thessalonians 1:11 Corinthians 1:22 Corinthians 1:1, and many others.]

The Jews used ekklesia to refer to the assembly of Israel, the nation that was called God’s people. [See the Septuagint in such places as Deuteronomy 9:10Joshua 9:2; and Psalm 21:22.] The Jews were using the Greek synagoge (14:1) to define their meetings and the place in which they met, so that was not a good word for Christians to use in defining their group. Ekklesia, meaning an assembly, was a logical choice to define those who are called to be a new people of God.

In a secular sense, ekklesia referred to the citizen-assembly of a Greek city. In the Christian context it denotes the assembly of believers in Jesus. The term has something of the old and the new about it. The use of ekklesia indicates the early Christians’ sense of continuity with old Israel, as a people of God. However, the Christians were a new people of God — those who had accepted Jesus as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.

Unfortunately, the word “church” has come to have connotations that ekklesia did not. We speak of “going to church,” when in biblical usage, it is the “church” that comes together to a place of worship. Ekklesia referred to the people who meet together, not the place in which they meet. In some ways, “congregation” would be a better translation. It would make it clear that what is in view is an assembly of believers, not a place or a legal organization.

Signs and wonders (5:12)

Verses 12–16 contain another of Luke’s summary statements about the spreading of the gospel and growth of the church. Here we catch a cameo-like glimpse of the power of the apostles and the growing community of believers in Jerusalem. Luke writes that “the apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people” (5:12). Earlier, the church prayed that God would show his power among the people in healings, signs and wonders (4:30). This section tells us God answered that prayer.

The deaths of Ananias and Sapphira were also examples of supernatural signs. As the miracles of healing were a positive sign that the kingdom of God had arrived, so the miraculous nature of Ananias and Sapphira’s death was a negative sign of the same reality. The healing miracles were so stunning that sick people who simply lay under Peter’s shadow were cured (5:15). Jesus had said the apostles would do greater works than he did, and his prophecy was coming true.

The image of healing by sheer presence here is striking and perhaps even shocking. Nothing in the Gospel tradition is close to it, except perhaps the healing of the woman by touching Jesus’ garment (Luke 8:43), or the healing of the centurion’s slave at long distance (Luke 7:1-10). [Johnson, 96.]

Later, Luke writes that God did “extraordinary miracles through Paul” (19:11). Pieces of cloth that had been touched by Paul would be taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured. Luke is telling his readers that like Jesus, the apostles are able to heal sufferers at a distance (Matthew 8:5-13Mark 7:24-30). It was an extraordinary time in the church when God’s power was dramatically and openly felt. Paul’s letters confirm this fact, that God’s overwhelming power was at work in the young church. [1 Corinthians 2:4-52 Corinthians 12:12Galatians 3:51 Thessalonians 1:5; and also Hebrews 2:3-4.]

The church grows (5:13-16)

Meanwhile, as the apostles perform miracles and spread the gospel, the church regularly meets in Solomon’s Colonnade, which was part of the temple complex. The church is held in such reverence and awe because of the miracles that “no one else dared join them” (5:13). They did not want to pretend to believe unless they actually did. The expression in Greek translated “no one else” or “the rest” seems to have been a technical term for non-believers (Luke 8:101 Thessalonians 4:135:6). That may be its sense here. However, in verse 14, Luke says, “More and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.”

On the surface, this seems to be a contradiction. Were no others joining the Christian community, or were more being added? What these two verses probably mean is that unbelieving Jews in general were so frightened by the supernatural power of the apostles that they stayed away from the Christians and didn’t bother them. William Barclay has an interesting translation of verse 13 that catches this sense of things: “Of the others no one dared to meddle with them.” The death of Ananias and Sapphira had caused great fear. It and the other miracles served to keep unbelievers and persecutors at arm’s length. However, for those individuals whose minds were open to the Holy Spirit, such miraculous occurrences would have been magnets drawing them to the Christian community in Jerusalem.

Luke tells us that the reach of the church and gospel message is spreading to the towns surrounding Jerusalem (5:16). This is a new feature of the mission. The way is being prepared for the gospel to advance into all Judea. The work of God is becoming more powerful and spreading. However, the effectiveness of the apostles’ witness, both in word and deed, impels the Jewish religious authorities to once more take action against them.

Persecution Strikes the Church (Acts 5:16–8:3)

Arrested and freed (5:17-20)

While most non-believing Jews are afraid to meddle with the Christian community in Jerusalem, the religious leaders are finally driven to action. The church is having success after success, and the high priest and his associates — who were Sadducees — felt threatened. Luke writes that they are “filled with jealousy” (5:17-18). Because of this, the Sanhedrin arrests the apostles and puts them in jail. It appears that all the apostles are involved this time, not just Peter and John. The temple authorities issue no warning, as they did to Peter and John. They simply round them up and throw them into the guardroom, probably in the temple precincts. In essence, the apostles are punished for disobeying the order not to preach in Jesus’ name.

But then another miracle occurs. During the night an angel opens the doors of the jail (5:19). Angels often appear in Luke and Acts, acting as intermediaries between humans and God. [See Luke 1:11262:91322:4324:23Acts 8:2610:372211:1312:7-152327:23.] In this case, all the apostles are released through divine intervention. Later in Acts we will see even more dramatic prison miracles, involving Peter (12:6-11) and Paul (16:26-31).

Here the angel tells the apostles to go to the temple courts and continue preaching “about this new life” (5:20). The message the apostles preached includes the resurrection — the new and eternal life made possible by Jesus. The resurrection is the capstone message of the good news (1 Corinthians 15:1-20). The “new life” can also refer to the new life that Christians experience after conversion. Paul explains that believers are baptized into Jesus’ death, and are figuratively buried with him in death. But they are also raised with Christ that they “may live a new life” (Romans 6:4).

Freed by an angel

At daybreak, probably as devout Jews begin to gather for the morning sacrifice and morning prayers, the apostles come into the temple precincts, and they teach the people about Jesus and salvation. Later in the morning, the high priest calls together the Sanhedrin, in order to judge and assign punishment on the apostles. Temple police officers are sent to the jail to bring the apostles to the trial. They are shocked to find that the prisoners are missing even though the jail is fully secured. The officers return to the chief priests with the news of the apostles’ escape. While the Sanhedrin is considering these puzzling developments, someone rushes into the assembly and says, “The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people” (5:25).

The situation, while deadly serious, is filled with comedic potential. Luke exploited the irony and humor of the situation, which is evident in his narrative.

With the comic speed of an old “Keystone Cops” movie, an angel sets the apostles free, and by daybreak they are back making trouble at the temple. Then follows an even more comic shuttling back and forth from council to jail, back to the council, with the discovery of the apostles busy at the temple, teaching. [Willimon, 56.]

Brought to the Sanhedrin (5:26-28)

The captain of the temple police and his officers now go to fetch the apostles as they are preaching to the people. No force is used, because the Sanhedrin is afraid the people would stone its members if they arrest the apostles (5:26). 


Acts 5:27-32

Brought to the Sanhedrin (5:26-28)

The captain of the temple police and his officers now go to fetch the apostles as they are preaching to the people. No force is used, because the Sanhedrin is afraid the people would stone its members if they arrest the apostles (5:26). The apostles comply with the order and do not resist (Luke 22:50). After they are brought before the Sanhedrin, the high priest berates them for teaching in Jesus’ name at the temple. The leaders are especially concerned that they are being singled out as responsible for the death of Jesus. They say that the apostles are “determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood” (5:28). They clearly fear a violent insurrection against them.

By accusing the Jewish leaders of murdering the Messiah, whom God had then raised from the dead, the Christians were in effect publicly calling for divine retribution. The Jewish leaders regarded the death of Jesus as the result of the legal trial of a malefactor; the Christians were making it out to be an act of murder, and thus claiming that the Jewish leaders were guilty men. [I. Howard Marshall, Acts, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), page 119.]

While the apostles are placing accountability on those with whom it obviously lies — the Sanhedrin — they are not interested in pointing the finger of blame. They are preaching the forgiveness of sin, not condemnation. We should note that the high priest cannot bring himself to use Jesus’ name. Rather, he contemptuously refers to “this man’s blood” (5:28). Earlier, he avoided using Jesus’ name by using the phrase “in this name.” The disdain and hatred for Jesus ran deep.

The charge answered (5:29-32)

The apostles then respond to the Sanhedrin’s threat. In a brief summary of their defense, Luke describes Peter as the spokesman for the others. Nonetheless, all the apostles agree with the argument. They assert that they should obey God rather than human beings (5:29). Since God commanded them to preach about the work of Jesus, that’s what they are going to do. Peter and John had affirmed this principle at their first trial, that they are constrained to obey God over human authorities (4:19). Now all the apostles take the same stand.

They were eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection and glorification (2 Peter 1:16-18). Now they are obligated to testify that the one they heard, saw and touched is the Word of life (John 1:1-2). “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (4:20).

Hanged on a “tree” (5:30)

Peter begins the apostles’ defense by asserting that the God of Israel “raised Jesus from the dead” (5:30). The phrase “from the dead” is not in the Greek — the Greek text simply says that God raised Jesus. Peter may be referring to Jesus’ exaltation (5:31). That is, Peter would be saying that the very person the Jews rejected and killed is the person God brought onto the stage of history to fulfill the role of Messiah. God “raised up” or chose Jesus to accomplish his purpose. In any case, the resurrection was the focal point of God’s purpose. God had to raise Jesus from death in order to “raise him” to glory and exaltation. The resurrection is the divine vindication of Jesus. This contrasts with his rejection by humans, epitomized by the crucifixion (2:23; 3:14; 4:10).

In Greek, Peter refers to a “tree” (xylou) to describe Jesus’ crucifixion (5:30). But this doesn’t mean Jesus was crucified on a living tree. Luke tells us that the cross was carried through the streets of Jerusalem (Luke 23:26). In Jesus’ day, the Greek word xylon was used for objects made from wood, including poles. Luke uses xylon in referring to the clubs carried by those arresting Jesus (Luke 22:52) and the wooden stocks into which Paul was placed (Acts 16:24). A few times in the New Testament, as here in verse 30, xylon is also used for the cross of Jesus (10:39; 13:29; Galatians 3:131 Peter 2:24).

The phrase “hanged on a tree” comes from Deuteronomy 21:22-23. In the law of ancient Israel, a person guilty of a capital offense was put to death by stoning. Any such executed criminal was considered to be under God’s curse. After his execution, the condemned person’s body was hung on a tree during the day, but buried before nightfall. What Peter is saying is that the Jews had inflicted the greatest disgrace on Jesus. They condemned him to death with a capital offense, and then crucified him as a heinous criminal. Paul discusses this paradox of God’s chosen vessel being placed under a divine curse to die for the sins of humanity (Galatians 3:10-14, with reference to Deuteronomy 21:22-23).

By using the phrase “hanged on a tree” in this context, Peter highlights the contrast between the people’s rejection of Jesus and God’s glorification of the One accounted as accursed. “God exalted him [Jesus] to his own right hand as Prince and Savior,” said Peter (5:31). Paradoxically, Jesus’ rejection and death (and resurrection) is what makes it possible to “bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins” (5:31). Thus, salvation is being offered to the very people who “hanged Jesus on a tree.”

Prince and Savior (5:31)

This is the first time in Acts that the title “Savior” (Greek, soter) is used of Jesus. It is used only once more in Acts (13:23) and a few times in the Gospels. Although the title is common now, it is used less than 20 times in the rest of the New Testament. There is no question, however, that God’s plan of salvation works through Jesus Christ as Savior (Philippians 3:202 Peter 1:11 John 4:14). As Peter stressed earlier, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). In these early sections Luke often reminds his readers that the promise of salvation was made to Israel (1:6; 2:36; 4:10, 27; 5:21). In keeping with God’s promises, the offer of salvation went to the Jews first.

Peter made an important observation about salvation in his summary defense. Repentance and forgiveness of sins are given by God (5:31). Human beings, on their own, cannot decide to repent and then present themselves as fulfilling the requirements for salvation. To repent involves having a “new mind” that connects with God’s thoughts. This is something that must be given by God, and it is given through the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 8:10).

Those who obey him (5:32)

Peter and the apostles say they are witnesses of these wonderful truths about salvation (5:32). Another witness is the Holy Spirit, “whom God has given to those who obey him” (5:32). When taken out of context, this verse might seem to teach that obedience must come first and is a requirement for receiving the Holy Spirit. However, the New Testament teaches that the Holy Spirit is a gift, not a payment for work.

True obedience to God, which comes from a relationship of trust, is internal and is made possible by the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Holy Spirit must come before faith and obedience can occur. We are saved through faith, not because of what we do (Romans 3:21-26Ephesians 2:8). Faith goes hand in hand with an obedient, submissive spirit. But complete obedience — which would include sinlessness — is not the actual state of any human being, except Jesus.

Peter is not making a timeless or general statement about the cause-and-effect relationship of the Holy Spirit, faith and obedience. The context makes his point clear. The Sanhedrin is challenging the apostles’ claim to be speaking for God. To the council, the apostles are rogues and revolutionaries, the leaders of a purely human movement who are trying to make the executed Jesus a martyr. The apostles counter the accusation by saying the Sanhedrin is the one resisting the purpose of God (5:30-31). The disciples insist that their witness to Christ is given under the direction of a divine witness (5:32). Apart from the Holy Spirit’s presence in their preaching, the apostles’ witness could fall only on deaf ears, as the attitude of the council itself revealed. Human testimony can have the desired effect on listeners only if the Holy Spirit is operating as a “witness” in the message and in the mind of the hearer.

Here, Peter is reaffirming that the Holy Spirit is revealing and guaranteeing the truth of the apostolic message. Peter points out that God’s Spirit is “given to those who obey him” (5:32) – in other words, the Holy Spirit has already been given to the people who are obeying him – that is, the apostles. Peter is asserting that the apostles truly have the Holy Spirit. This is not saying anything about why or when the Holy Spirit is given.

Peter says that he and the other apostles are obeying God rather than human beings (5:29). How are they doing so? By being witnesses to Jesus and preaching in his name! Peter is saying that this fact — that they are obeying God by preaching — is evidence of their having the Holy Spirit. Peter is emphasizing in verse 32 that he and the other apostles are obedient to the command of God to preach the gospel (1:8; 5:20). The specific obedience Peter refers to is that of being Jesus’ witnesses, and he is declaring that their witness is corroborated by the Holy Spirit.

The fact that the apostles are witnessing to Christ is evidence that the Holy Spirit is with them — and not with the Sanhedrin, despite their claim to speak for God. In short, the Holy Spirit is given to those who, after being commanded to do so, obey God in faithfully preaching about Jesus Christ. The true representatives of God are the ones who are obeying him.


Acts 5:33-41

Gamaliel the Pharisee (5:33-34)

The Jewish leaders are told that they were responsible for the death of Jesus, whom God had exalted. Peter insists that it is the apostles who are being led by God’s Holy Spirit, and obedient to God. The implications are that the religious leaders are disobedient to God, have rejected his purpose for humanity, and have rejected their own Savior. Most of the Sanhedrin officials are angry after this accusation, and they are about to condemn the apostles to death. (Rome had not given the Sanhedrin the authority to inflict capital punishment, but the Sanhedrin could find a way around that, just as they had done with Jesus.)

But a man named Gamaliel stands up to speak, and what he says changes the council’s mind and saves the apostles. This member of the Pharisee sect was an extremely respected teacher of the law. He was a grandson of Hillel, who founded one school of the Pharisees. Later, Luke notes that Gamaliel had been Paul’s teacher (22:3). Gamaliel was so respected among pious Jews that he was given the title Rabban, which means “our teacher.” This was a higher title than even Rab (“teacher”) or Rabbi (“my teacher”). The Mishnah, a book composed of materials attributed to Jewish teachers from 50 b.c. to A.D. 200, says of him: “When Rabban Gamaliel the Elder died, the glory of the Torah came to an end, and cleanness and separateness perished.” [Sotah 9.15.]

Although the Sadducean leaders of the Sanhedrin want to sentence the apostles to death, they cannot take action without the support of so prominent a religious leader as Gamaliel. Though the Pharisees are in the minority in the Sanhedrin, they command much more public support than the Sadducees. For this reason, the Sanhedrin cannot disregard the opinion of a Pharisee, especially one of Gamaliel’s stature.

Counsel of moderation (5:35-39)

Gamaliel tells the council to reconsider its desire to have the apostles executed (5:35) and to let them go (5:38). If their movement is of purely human origin, it will fail, said Gamaliel. But if it came from a divine source, he said, “You will only find yourselves fighting against God” (5:39).

Gamaliel refers to two Jewish revolutionaries — Theudas and Judas — who were killed by the Romans, and their followers scattered (5:36-37). His implication is that if the Christian movement is another attempted revolution, the Roman military will kill its leaders and crush the movement. The Jewish leaders don’t need to get involved in something that might backfire on them.

At first glance, it seems strange that a member of the Pharisee sect would counsel leniency for Jesus’ disciples. After all, the Pharisees were frequent debate opponents of Jesus, as Luke noted in his Gospel. [Luke 5:21307:3011:37-12:115:216:14-1518:9-14.] Jesus often criticized them for their hypocritical behavior. Also, Gamaliel must have been on the council when it condemned Jesus and handed him over to the Roman authority for crucifixion (Luke 22:66-23:25Matthew 27:62). There is no indication that Gamaliel defended Jesus. Why come to the defense of his followers now?

Some commentators point out that Jesus was not necessarily hated by all the Pharisees. He was often invited to their homes for a meal (Luke 7:3611:3714:1). Jesus appeared to have some support among this sect, as the case of Nicodemus indicates (John 3:17:5019:39). Later, many of the Pharisees became Christians (Acts 15:523:6). While Pharisees would have been on the Sanhedrin that condemned Jesus, the Gospels do not name Gamaliel specifically, so we do not know how Gamaliel felt about Jesus and what the Sanhedrin did with Jesus. Thus, many commentators are led to a favorable view of Gamaliel’s counsel to free the apostles. William Neil says:

Apart from his liberal leanings, which would encourage his tolerance of the Nazarenes [i.e., Christians] as law-abiding and faithful Jews, Gamaliel would be naturally more sympathetic than were the Sadducees to preachers of the Resurrection. [Neil, 99.]

Others, such as Luke Timothy Johnson, take a more critical view of Gamaliel’s speech. He points out that Gamaliel was one of the synagogues’ leaders and would have been party to the condemnation of Jesus. Gamaliel had already rejected the apostles’ claim that the power of God was at work — that Jesus had been resurrected and glorified (5:31). He was also part of a council that had earlier rejected the proof that God had healed the beggar at the temple gate.

Commentaries on Acts of the Apostles

Later, with Judaism’s institutions — the temple, law and land — under frontal assault by Stephen, Gamaliel probably joined in the persecution of Christians in Jerusalem. Once again, then, the question: Isn’t it possible that Gamaliel’s counsel to free the apostles was tainted with selfish motives? Johnson claims that Gamaliel’s intent was generally self-serving, and had little to do with belief in God, or the Christian movement:

He sends the apostles from the room, and with his colleagues formulates a plan of action based on historical prudence…. His entire point is to reduce Jesus to the status of those “would-be” prophets and kings. His argument runs like this: they “rose up,” but then they were killed, and their followers scattered. His implication is that the same thing will probably happen here. [Johnson, 103.]

The leader of the Christians — Jesus — had already been executed, just like the leaders of the two movements to which Gamaliel referred, Theudas and Judas. Gamaliel’s inference was that the Christians are already a doomed movement because their leader, Jesus, is dead. The apostles will soon follow. Why get involved in a religious argument that could have bad political consequences for Jews?

Apostles rejoice (5:40-41)

Whatever point of view Gamaliel may have held toward the apostles, his intervention results in their freedom. But first they are flogged and again ordered not to speak in Jesus’ name (5:40). The apostles probably receive a severe beating of 39 lashes. The Mishnah describes this punishment, based on Deuteronomy 25:2-3. [Makkot 3:10-15a.] The whipping could be administered by the Sanhedrin or the officials of a local synagogue if it was determined that Jewish law had been violated. Paul would later feel the sting of such a flogging on five occasions (2 Corinthians 11:24).

The apostles rejoice in their punishment, for they think of themselves as being “counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (5:41). Jesus counseled his disciples to rejoice when persecuted for his name (Matthew 5:11). The apostles Peter and Paul, having suffered much persecution themselves, could from personal experience tell Christians to rejoice even though they are persecuted (Romans 5:32 Corinthians 6:101 Peter 1:64:13). Such situations as this one described by Luke provide Christians with examples of the spiritual rejoicing they can have even under persecution.

Finally, Luke reports that the apostles are obedient to the angelic message to preach the gospel. They disregard the warning of the Sanhedrin not to teach and “they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah” (5:42).

Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012


Acts 6:1-7

Persecution Strikes the Church, continued

Hebraic and Grecian Jews (6:1)

Luke turns away from the conflict between the Sanhedrin and the church leaders to introduce two groups within the Jerusalem church. They were the “Grecian” Jews (Greek, Hellenistai, or “Hellenists”) and “Hebraic” Jews. We may be surprised that subgroups exist within the first church. But these groups are crucial to the story of Acts. It’s important we identify these Hebraic and Hellenistic Jews, for it will help us understand the situation of the Jerusalem church, and how the gospel message is being preached.

Most commentators divide the Grecian and Hebraic Jews along linguistic and geographic lines. The Hellenistic Jews are those who speak mainly Greek, and formerly lived outside of Judea and Galilee. But they had settled in Jerusalem — retired, as it were, to the homeland. Nevertheless, they still have affinities with lands of the Jewish dispersion from which they came. The Hebraic Jews are those who speak mainly Aramaic, and were born in Jerusalem or Judea. A parallel in modern Jerusalem would be the distinction between Jews who were born in the land of Israel (sabras) and those who migrated to Israel from other nations. The Hellenistic Jews in the church probably attended Greek-speaking synagogues before they became Christians. The Hebraic Christians attended synagogues in which Aramaic was used.

Defining these two groups solely by their language and place of birth lacks some precision. Paul called himself a “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5) and classed himself among the Hebraioi (2 Corinthians 11:22). But he was fluent in Greek and came from Tarsus in Asia Minor, not Jerusalem. In that sense, Paul was a Hellenist who spoke Aramaic like a native. While Paul had been born a Diaspora Jew, it’s probable that he lived since his youth in Jerusalem, where he was immersed in Judaism.

Clearly, we must go further when trying to understand the difference between Hebraic and Hellenistic Jews. Some commentators feel that the Hellenistic Jews are more devoted to the ancestral religion and culture than the Aramaic-speaking Jews. Why would they have returned to Judea, whose culture and economy were less attractive than those of other regions of the Roman Empire?

Further, we can probably assume that Diaspora Jews who settled in Jerusalem may have been looked upon with dislike and suspicion by the natives. The immigrants would have had different languages (Greek and native tongues), values and culture. We can see this suspicion and resentment in many nations today by native-born people against immigrants.

According to the Talmud, Pharisaism made little secret of its contempt for Hellenists and, unlike those from Syria or Babylonia (regions that are often considered extensions of the Holy Land in Talmudic discussions), they were frequently categorized by the native-born … populace of Jerusalem as second-class Israelites. [Longenecker, 329.]

As the church in Jerusalem grew larger, more and more Hebraic and Grecian Jews came into the church, and some of the prejudices between the two groups carried over into the church. As the case of Ananias and Sapphira showed, all was not well with everyone in the church. One of the difficulties is that the Greek-speaking Jews feel that they are being discriminated against in the Jerusalem church. Perhaps the slight is not intentional, but it is nonetheless felt. Luke implies that the Hellenists are a somewhat neglected minority, and for a time, not well served.

Widows neglected (6:1)

The problem is that the Hellenistic widows of the Jerusalem church are “being overlooked in the daily distribution of food” (6:1). That is, the church apparently has an organized charity, such as a daily “soup kitchen” for the needy, including widows. But the immigrant widows are not getting an equal share. This is a blight on the church. Both the Torah and the example of Jesus mandate that the community pay special attention to helping widows. [Deuteronomy 10:1814:2916:111424:1719-2126:12-13.] The law even specifies a curse for those who neglect the poor (Deuteronomy 27:19).

The prophets stress the responsibility of “doing justice” for widows. [Malachi 3:5Isaiah 1:172310:2Jeremiah 5:287:623:3Ezekiel 22:7Psalm 94:6.] In the New Testament, the epistle of James reflects the importance of such justice, insisting that true religion includes looking after orphans and widows in their distress (1:27). Mechanisms for aiding widows had long been promoted in Judaism. Jews had developed a system of aid to the poor and those in need. Religious communities such as the Essenes had a kind of social security system that provided for members’ needs. But here Christians are neglecting their own.

As in the case of Ananias and Sapphira, this neglect of church widows is no incidental problem. Although Luke presents the situation without condemnation, the affront threatens the spiritual integrity of the Christian community. It’s possible that the inequity in the distribution of food was merely the surface issue. This may be part of a larger conflict between two groups who had different cultural backgrounds. (We will eventually see doctrinal differences become more evident between the two groups.)

Earlier, we saw the Christian community taking care of the needy. Believers were freely sharing their possessions with the less fortunate among them (2:44-45; 5:32, 34-35). But as the church grows, so does the number of widows who need help. To make matters worse, widows from the Diaspora would probably be especially in need. They would be less likely to have relatives nearby to help them. And if they do not speak the local language very well, they may be missing out on some of the information.

They are the ones with the most need, but the church is neglecting them. Almost certainly, discrimination is involved in the inequity, but Luke tends to downplay controversies in favor of showing how problems were resolved. The distribution of food is probably in the hands of the Hebrews, and they unthinkingly take care of their own, and the Greek-speaking widows cannot communicate their needs to the people doing the distribution.

Ultimately, the apostles are responsible, because they administer the common fund (4:34-35), but they have more work than they can handle. Since they are Hebrews, it is easy for them to be unaware that the Greek-speaking widows are being neglected. As soon as they learn that the immigrant widows are being neglected, they immediately take steps to correct the problem.

“Choose seven men” (6:2-6)

When the neglect comes to light, the Twelve gather the church together and tell the members that the apostles can no longer manage the food distribution program. They simply lack the time to do it right. The apostles are too occupied with evangelism to “wait on tables” (6:2). They ask the group to chose seven men to handle the daily distribution. The apostles will turn the responsibility of the “soup kitchen” over to them (verse 3).

The apostles do not ignore the problem, nor chastise the widows for complaining. Nor do they try to hold on to this important responsibility, because they can do it only if they neglect their duty to preach. Members of the Jerusalem congregation are therefore asked to choose seven people who can take over the social-service work of the church.

The Twelve obviously have great stature and power in the church community and could have chosen the leaders on their own. But on this critical decision they are willing to give up their authority and ask the community to decide. The apostles turn the authority for working out the solution of the problem to those who feel it most acutely, for they are probably the best ones to solve it.

The apostles give requirements: The men are to have both wisdom and the Spirit, or we might say, a wisdom inspired by the Holy Spirit (6:3). Clearly, the apostles are no longer jockeying for power, as when they were unconverted (Luke 22:24Matthew 20:20-28). The seven men chosen are Stephen, Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas, a Gentile convert to Judaism from Antioch (6:5). The men have Greek names, and it is likely that they all come from the Hellenistic wing of the Jerusalem church (though many Judean Jews also have Greek names).

Stephen and Philip (6:5)

Stephen, introduced here almost as an aside, will become an important figure in Luke’s story. (Luke often casually introduces important characters a short time before they become important.) His activities in the next chapter link the Jerusalem church to the Christian movement beyond Judea. He is a pivotal character whose death ends Luke’s story of the Jerusalem church. Luke mentions Stephen later in Acts, and his book shows how Stephen provides a turning point for the spread of the gospel (11:19; 22:20). In particular, Stephen’s speech is the catalyst that sparks a great persecution. This causes Christians to flee to other areas, bringing the gospel with them (8:2). What looked like bad news at first, turned out to be good in the long run.

Of the other six individuals Luke mentions, only Philip plays a further role in Luke’s account. It is an important one. Philip became a prophet-evangelist. Luke shows him doing signs and miracles (8:6, 13) and being empowered by the Spirit to preach the gospel (8:29, 39). His seven daughters prophesy (21:9). Philip carries the gospel to Samaria (8:5); proclaims salvation to the Ethiopian (8:29); and takes the message along the Judean coast from Azotus to Caesarea (8:40). Some years later on his final trip to Jerusalem, Paul visits Philip in Caesarea (21:8). It’s possible that Philip was one of Luke’s sources for the story of Acts, especially for the events narrated in chapters 6-8.

The interesting thing about Nicolaus, the last-mentioned of the seven, is that he is a convert (proselyte) to Judaism from paganism. Only full converts are called proselytes. They are instructed in Judaism, baptized and circumcised. The God-fearers only worship and study in the synagogues; they are not circumcised. Luke notes that Nicolas comes from Antioch in Syria. This is the first reference to the city that will soon become the launching-point for the Gentile mission. And the church already has a leader who is Gentile by blood.

Laying on of hands (6:6)

The church community as a whole, or perhaps the Hellenistic part, selects the men it wants to handle the daily distribution. They are taken to the apostles, who officially place them in office. The apostles give a community prayer and “laid their hands on them” (6:6). This is the first mention of this practice in Acts. In Acts it accompanies several events — baptism (8:17, 19; 19:6); healings (9:12, 17; 28:8) and a commission to ministry (13:3). The practice has ties with the Old Testament, where the laying on of hands is mentioned in a variety of contexts. [Genesis 48:13-20Exodus 29:10Leviticus 1:43:24:416:21Numbers 27:23.] In general, it symbolizes a conferring of office and responsibility (Numbers 8:10). In the Old Testament, it was the community of Israel that placed hands on the individual, though it would have been physically impossible for the entire community to do it. People representingthe community laid on their hands. The same thing is true in Acts as the apostles lay hands on the seven men on behalf of the whole community. This ritual signals that the church as a whole approves the men to supervise the daily distribution.

It is not quite as clear as NIV makes out who prayed and laid their hands on them. If the grammatical agreements of the Greek are any guide, then it was done by the whole church acting “in the presence of the apostles”.… By this act the people made them their representatives, as the Israelites had once made Levites their representatives by laying hands on them (Numbers 27:18Deuteronomy 34:9). [David J. Williams, Acts. New International Bible Commentary. (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1990), page 123.]

It is often assumed that the Seven are appointed to the office of deacon. However, Luke does not refer to them by this term. He uses the ordinary verb for service, diakoneo, but not the noun diakonos. When Philip is described by a title, he is called “Philip the evangelist” (21:8), not “Philip the deacon.” (The first New Testament mention of deacons is in Romans 16:1 and Philippians 1:1.)

Actually, the Seven are not given a title — they are in a service role. Their responsibility is similar to what deacons later did (1 Timothy 3:8-13), but over time, it becomes apparent that these men are appointed by God to serve in a special ministry. Stephen and Philip, the two of the Seven about which we know something, seem to have no further connection to the daily distribution or “waiting on tables.” They are prophets who preach the word, do signs and wonders, and extend the work of the apostles.

They are formally named as the Seven (Acts 21:8), even as the original apostles are called the Twelve. In effect, the office of the Seven is as unique as that of the original apostles.

While not minimizing the importance of the apostles to the whole church, we may say, that in some way Stephen, Philip, and perhaps others of the appointed seven may well have been to the Hellenistic believers what the apostles were to the native-born Christians. [Longenecker, 335.]

Jerusalem church grows (6:7)

Luke ends the account of the Seven with a summary statement of the progress of the gospel and church: “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith” (6:7). This is one of Luke’s regular pauses to summarize the state of the church’s growth in Jerusalem (2:41, 47; 4:4; 5:14). Six of these general reports have been noted in Acts, each one showing a further outreach of the gospel from Jerusalem. [Acts 6:79:3112:2416:519:2028:31.]

The events of the first panel probably take place in the first year or so after Jesus’ resurrection. The second panel occurs in the mid-thirties A.D. The second panel (6:8-9:30) focuses on the work of three Hellenists whose ministries were essential for spreading the gospel beyond Jerusalem — Stephen, Philip, and Saul (Paul). Stephen had a brief career. He was martyred after giving a scathing speech to Jews who were members of one or more Hellenistic synagogues in Jerusalem.

Luke records only a brief ministry for Philip in Samaria and the coastal area of Judea. However, he probably continued to preach, and is still part of the community about 20 years later (21:8-9). Also in the second panel, Luke records Saul’s conversion and early ministry. He is, in a sense, the third “Hellenist.” (Though Saul is a Hebraic Jew in some respects, he is also a man of the Diaspora and the Greek world.)

In the second panel, Luke’s interest moves from Peter and the Twelve to focus more on the Hellenistic Seven and Paul. The church in Jerusalem has expanded among Jews who are connected with the world at large — the Hellenists. They may be “Hellenists” because of one or more characteristics — language, place of birth, custom or psychological orientation. This means that the preaching of the gospel has begun to go beyond the traditional preoccupations of Jewish culture — its land (especially Jerusalem), the temple and the Law.

The church has resolved some of its major potential problems — especially injustice and disunity. Now, in a spirit of prayer and with the power of the Holy Spirit, it is ready to move on — “So the word of God spread” (6:7).

Luke has successfully portrayed a restored people and the authority of the Twelve over it. Now, he prepares for the second stage of Jesus’ programmatic prophecy in Acts 1:8, that the Gospel would move out from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the world. [Johnson, 110.]

Luke informs his readers that a large number of priests are converted and become part of the church (6:7). One commentator estimates that as many as 8,000 priests and 10,000 Levites serve at the temple. We should distinguish these ordinary priests from the high priestly families. The working priests are a marginalized group — far removed from the world of the enormously wealthy high priestly families — and perhaps even disaffected from them. [Josephus, Antiquities 20:181; Wars 2:409-410.] It is from the ranks of the common priests that many were converted to faith in Jesus as the Messiah.


Acts 6:8-15

The preaching of Stephen (6:8-10)

Luke next turns to give an account of Stephen’s ministry. The apostles are teaching mainly at the temple, and in front of the Sanhedrin. Now we see a subtle shift in audience, as a leader of the Hellenistic Christian community brings the gospel to the Greek-speaking synagogues in Jerusalem. In particular, he evangelizes among members of the “Synagogue of the Freedmen,” composed of Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria in North Africa and from provinces in Asia Minor — Cilicia and Asia (6:9).

“Freedmen” were former slaves (or their children) who had been emancipated by their owners. During Pompey’s conquest of Judea in 63 b.c., for example, many Jews were taken captive to Rome, and many others probably ended up being sent to various parts of the Empire. Many of these slaves were later freed. The descendants of such slaves, the Jewish freedmen, begin to argue with Stephen. But they cannot “stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke” (6:10). Jesus told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would teach them what to say when they came to trial (Luke 12:12). They will be given “words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict” (Luke 21:15). Luke shows that another prophecy had come to pass.

In essence, Stephen speaks as a prophet, as one of the witnesses predicted by Jesus. He is filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom (6:5, 10; 7:55) and he does “great wonders and signs.” For Luke these are the marks of a prophet. [Acts 2:1922434:1622305:12.] Stephen is “full of God’s grace and power” (6:8). The comparison with the apostles, who also spoke “with great power,” is clear (4:33). Stephen speaks with the same spiritual might as the apostles, and should be recognized as one who brings a true gospel message.

False accusations (6:11-14)

After hearing Stephen speak, Jews from the Synagogue of Freedmen organize a smear campaign. They persuade some people to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God” (6:11). To blaspheme or slander Moses is to say something thought to be disrespectful about the Torah, “the law of Moses.” What Stephen is probably doing is challenging the centrality of the law in God’s plan of salvation — he is saying that Jesus, not the law, is the center of God’s plan.

To “speak blasphemous words against Moses” refers to contempt for the temple and its rituals. By saying that salvation comes through Christ, Stephen seems to say that the system of worship centered on the Jerusalem temple is not needed. But the temple is the foundation and focus of Jewish national life, worship and salvation. This does not set well with a pious Jewish group that centers its religious life around its institutions. The temple is the very reason these people had moved to Jerusalem.

The Synagogue of Freedman take their campaign of slander to the streets, to the city fathers and religious leaders. With mounting support in their favor, the Freedmen are emboldened to grab Stephen and drag him before the Sanhedrin. They bring false witnesses who lay an ominous charge against Stephen: “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law” (6:13). Similar charges are later leveled against Paul (21:20-21, 28; 24:7; 25:8).

Stephen is charged with religious innovation. The witnesses claim: “We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us” (6:14). Although Luke says this accusation comes from false witnesses, there is truth in what they are saying. Even if Stephen was not preaching it, they were able to see that if what Stephen is preaching is true, then it does render the temple and the ancestral customs obsolete.

Temple obsolete (6:11-14)

Jesus did predict the destruction of the temple (Luke 21:5), and that people did not need to worship there (John 4:21). Jesus is God’s replacement for the temple – a hard saying for unconverted Jews (Mark 14:5815:19John 2:19). God is not to be found in a place, or a system of worship, or a time. Rather, he lives within all believers, wherever they were, through the Spirit.

Jesus declared the temple to be obsolete as a place where one must go to worship and have sin atoned. True spiritual cleansing comes through Jesus’ death and resurrection. [Mark 15:38John 4:21Ephesians 2:20Hebrews 10:201 Peter 2:5.] Stephen is probably echoing these thoughts, insisting that with the coming of Christ the temple order is finished. The book of Hebrews explains this, and discusses the same general points Stephen probably makes. As F.F. Bruce points out, “In a number of respects Stephen blazes a trail later followed by the writer to the Hebrews.” [Bruce, 132.]

If the book of Hebrews contains the kinds of spiritual realities Stephen is speaking about, it’s not surprising that the Jews are angry at him. In their view, these ideas support the notion that he is speaking against Moses and God.

Stephen had a vision of a world for Christ. To the Jews two things were specially precious — the Temple, where alone sacrifice would be offered and God could be truly worshipped, and the Law which could never be changed. Stephen, however, said that the Temple must pass away, that the Law was but a stage toward the gospel and that Christianity must go out to the whole wide world. [William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, revised edition, The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), page 53.]

Commentaries on Acts of the Apostles

We have no account of Stephen’s preaching to the Greek-speaking Jews, so we don’t know exactly what he told them. But we can infer the drift of his teaching from the criticisms leveled against him, and from his later speech before the Aramaic-speaking Sanhedrin. With such volatile issues at stake, the antagonistic Freedmen merely needed to put a subtle but deadly twist on what Stephen is saying. There is no need for wholesale fabrication.

Stephen’s speech is unusual in that it attacks the very basis of Jewish life, something that the Twelve, so far as we can tell from Acts, don’t do. They don’t minimize the temple — they worship there, as does most of the church (2:46; 3:1; 5:13). But Stephen is doing more than insisting that Jews must accept Jesus as Messiah. He is telling them that their faith in the law and temple is misplaced and of no particular value.

From the accusations and from his defense, it is clear that Stephen had begun to apply his Christian convictions regarding the centrality of Jesus of Nazareth in God’s redemptive program to such issues as the significance of the land, the law, and the temple for Jewish Christians in view of the advent of the Messiah. This, however, was a dangerous path to tread, particularly for Hellenistic Jewish Christians! It was one that the apostles themselves seem to have been unwilling to explore. [Longenecker, 336.]

Stephen’s frontal attack on Jewish institutions has far-reaching repercussions for the church in Jerusalem. His speech alienates the Jewish community from the church, and unites its disparate parties against the believers. The entire city of Jerusalem is infuriated (6:12).

The chief-priestly party knew that they need have no fear of popular disapproval this time in prosecuting a leading member of the Nazarene community; on the contrary, the people would support and indeed demand the severest sanctions of the law against the man. [Bruce, 126.]

From the Sanhedrin to “the man on the street,” it turned into enemies those who had until now at least tolerated the believers. This in turn removed the one thing that had restrained the Sanhedrin from a thoroughgoing persecution of the believers, namely, their popularity (cf. 2:47; 5:13, 26). [Williams, 125.]

Facing the Sanhedrin (6:15)

Chapter 6 describes the background of Stephen’s missionary work, which leads to his arrest. The next chapter, the longest in Acts, is devoted to Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin. Taken together, the two chapters complete Luke’s discussion of the preaching of the gospel in Jerusalem and his description of the church in the city. After this, Luke begins reporting on the church’s expansion beyond Jerusalem.

The last verse of chapter 6 sets the stage for Stephen’s long speech before the Sanhedrin. Luke says that to the Sanhedrin members Stephen appeared to have “the face of an angel” (6:15). Luke probably means to tell us that Stephen is being led by the Holy Spirit (6:3, 5), and that the speech we will read is inspired by God. The high priest asks Stephen if the charges brought against him are true (7:1). This high priest was probably Caiaphas, who held office until A.D. 36. As president of the Sanhedrin, he was the chief judge in Jewish trials.

Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012


Acts 6:8-7:2

The preaching of Stephen (6:8-10)

Luke next turns to give an account of Stephen’s ministry. The apostles are teaching mainly at the temple, and in front of the Sanhedrin. Now we see a subtle shift in audience, as a leader of the Hellenistic Christian community brings the gospel to the Greek-speaking synagogues in Jerusalem. In particular, he evangelizes among members of the “Synagogue of the Freedmen,” composed of Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria in North Africa and from provinces in Asia Minor — Cilicia and Asia (6:9).

“Freedmen” were former slaves (or their children) who had been emancipated by their owners. During Pompey’s conquest of Judea in 63 b.c., for example, many Jews were taken captive to Rome, and many others probably ended up being sent to various parts of the Empire. Many of these slaves were later freed. The descendants of such slaves, the Jewish freedmen, begin to argue with Stephen. But they cannot “stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke” (6:10). Jesus told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would teach them what to say when they came to trial (Luke 12:12). They will be given “words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict” (Luke 21:15). Luke shows that another prophecy had come to pass.

In essence, Stephen speaks as a prophet, as one of the witnesses predicted by Jesus. He is filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom (6:5, 10; 7:55) and he does “great wonders and signs.” For Luke these are the marks of a prophet. [Acts 2:1922434:1622305:12.] Stephen is “full of God’s grace and power” (6:8). The comparison with the apostles, who also spoke “with great power,” is clear (4:33). Stephen speaks with the same spiritual might as the apostles, and should be recognized as one who brings a true gospel message.

False accusations (6:11-14)

After hearing Stephen speak, Jews from the Synagogue of Freedmen organize a smear campaign. They persuade some people to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God” (6:11). To blaspheme or slander Moses is to say something thought to be disrespectful about the Torah, “the law of Moses.” What Stephen is probably doing is challenging the centrality of the law in God’s plan of salvation — he is saying that Jesus, not the law, is the center of God’s plan.

To “speak blasphemous words against Moses” refers to contempt for the temple and its rituals. By saying that salvation comes through Christ, Stephen seems to say that the system of worship centered on the Jerusalem temple is not needed. But the temple is the foundation and focus of Jewish national life, worship and salvation. This does not set well with a pious Jewish group that centers its religious life around its institutions. The temple is the very reason these people had moved to Jerusalem.

The Synagogue of Freedman take their campaign of slander to the streets, to the city fathers and religious leaders. With mounting support in their favor, the Freedmen are emboldened to grab Stephen and drag him before the Sanhedrin. They bring false witnesses who lay an ominous charge against Stephen: “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law” (6:13). Similar charges are later leveled against Paul (21:20-21, 28; 24:7; 25:8).

Stephen is charged with religious innovation. The witnesses claim: “We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us” (6:14). Although Luke says this accusation comes from false witnesses, there is truth in what they are saying. Even if Stephen was not preaching it, they were able to see that if what Stephen is preaching is true, then it does render the temple and the ancestral customs obsolete.

Temple obsolete (6:11-14)

Jesus did predict the destruction of the temple (Luke 21:5), and that people did not need to worship there (John 4:21). Jesus is God’s replacement for the temple – a hard saying for unconverted Jews (Mark 14:5815:19John 2:19). God is not to be found in a place, or a system of worship, or a time. Rather, he lives within all believers, wherever they were, through the Spirit.

Jesus declared the temple to be obsolete as a place where one must go to worship and have sin atoned. True spiritual cleansing comes through Jesus’ death and resurrection. [Mark 15:38John 4:21Ephesians 2:20Hebrews 10:201 Peter 2:5.] Stephen is probably echoing these thoughts, insisting that with the coming of Christ the temple order is finished. The book of Hebrews explains this, and discusses the same general points Stephen probably makes. As F.F. Bruce points out, “In a number of respects Stephen blazes a trail later followed by the writer to the Hebrews.” [Bruce, 132.]

If the book of Hebrews contains the kinds of spiritual realities Stephen is speaking about, it’s not surprising that the Jews are angry at him. In their view, these ideas support the notion that he is speaking against Moses and God.

Stephen had a vision of a world for Christ. To the Jews two things were specially precious — the Temple, where alone sacrifice would be offered and God could be truly worshipped, and the Law which could never be changed. Stephen, however, said that the Temple must pass away, that the Law was but a stage toward the gospel and that Christianity must go out to the whole wide world. [William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, revised edition, The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), page 53.]

Commentaries on Acts of the Apostles

We have no account of Stephen’s preaching to the Greek-speaking Jews, so we don’t know exactly what he told them. But we can infer the drift of his teaching from the criticisms leveled against him, and from his later speech before the Aramaic-speaking Sanhedrin. With such volatile issues at stake, the antagonistic Freedmen merely needed to put a subtle but deadly twist on what Stephen is saying. There is no need for wholesale fabrication.

Stephen’s speech is unusual in that it attacks the very basis of Jewish life, something that the Twelve, so far as we can tell from Acts, don’t do. They don’t minimize the temple — they worship there, as does most of the church (2:46; 3:1; 5:13). But Stephen is doing more than insisting that Jews must accept Jesus as Messiah. He is telling them that their faith in the law and temple is misplaced and of no particular value.

From the accusations and from his defense, it is clear that Stephen had begun to apply his Christian convictions regarding the centrality of Jesus of Nazareth in God’s redemptive program to such issues as the significance of the land, the law, and the temple for Jewish Christians in view of the advent of the Messiah. This, however, was a dangerous path to tread, particularly for Hellenistic Jewish Christians! It was one that the apostles themselves seem to have been unwilling to explore. [Longenecker, 336.]

Stephen’s frontal attack on Jewish institutions has far-reaching repercussions for the church in Jerusalem. His speech alienates the Jewish community from the church, and unites its disparate parties against the believers. The entire city of Jerusalem is infuriated (6:12).

The chief-priestly party knew that they need have no fear of popular disapproval this time in prosecuting a leading member of the Nazarene community; on the contrary, the people would support and indeed demand the severest sanctions of the law against the man. [Bruce, 126.]

From the Sanhedrin to “the man on the street,” it turned into enemies those who had until now at least tolerated the believers. This in turn removed the one thing that had restrained the Sanhedrin from a thoroughgoing persecution of the believers, namely, their popularity (cf. 2:47; 5:13, 26). [Williams, 125.]

Facing the Sanhedrin (6:15)

Chapter 6 describes the background of Stephen’s missionary work, which leads to his arrest. The next chapter, the longest in Acts, is devoted to Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin. Taken together, the two chapters complete Luke’s discussion of the preaching of the gospel in Jerusalem and his description of the church in the city. After this, Luke begins reporting on the church’s expansion beyond Jerusalem.

The last verse of chapter 6 sets the stage for Stephen’s long speech before the Sanhedrin. Luke says that to the Sanhedrin members Stephen appeared to have “the face of an angel” (6:15). Luke probably means to tell us that Stephen is being led by the Holy Spirit (6:3, 5), and that the speech we will read is inspired by God. The high priest asks Stephen if the charges brought against him are true (7:1). This high priest was probably Caiaphas, who held office until A.D. 36. As president of the Sanhedrin, he was the chief judge in Jewish trials.

Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin (7:2-53)

Stephen’s response is the longest speech in Acts. His speech can be divided into segments that cover different aspects of Israel’s history:

  • Abraham’s calling (7:2-8);
  • the Patriarchs in Egypt (7:9-16);
  • life of Moses (7:17-36);
  • Moses and Israel in the wilderness (7:37-43);
  • and the Tabernacle of Testimony (7:44-50).

Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012


Acts 7:1-50

Acts Chapter 7: Persecution Strikes the Church, part 3

Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin (7:2-53)

Stephen’s response is the longest speech in Acts. His speech can be divided into segments that cover different aspects of Israel’s history:

  • Abraham’s calling (7:2-8);
  • the Patriarchs in Egypt (7:9-16);
  • life of Moses (7:17-36);
  • Moses and Israel in the wilderness (7:37-43);
  • and the Tabernacle of Testimony (7:44-50).

Stephen concludes with a stinging rebuke of the Sanhedrin (7:51-53). As good debaters often do, Stephen avoids answering the high priest’s question. He does not even directly address the accusation that he had slandered Moses and God.

The defense of Stephen before the Sanhedrin is hardly a defense in the sense of an explanation or apology calculated to win an acquittal. Rather, it is a proclamation of the Christian message in terms of the popular Judaism of the day and an indictment of the Jewish leaders for their failure to recognize Jesus of Nazareth as their Messiah or to appreciate the salvation provided in him. [Longenecker, 337.]

Stephen does respond to the underlying charge that he is a renegade Jew, and by extension, that the Messianic church is composed of apostate Jews. He does this by asserting that Israelite history (from the call of Abraham to the building of Solomon’s temple) proves that his listeners are the real defectors from God. Stephen is on the offense, not trying to win any favors!

Stephen points out that throughout Jewish history, God raised up leaders to deliver the people, but the Israelites rejected those leaders, including Moses (7:35). They erroneously believed that they were in God’s presence as long as they worshiped in the temple. But God’s presence in the original moveable sanctuary, the tabernacle, did not keep the Israelites from idolatry (7:39-42). The Jews are mistaken if they think that God dwells in the nation simply because the temple is in Jerusalem (7:44-50).

Stephen turns the accusation on its head. It is not he, but the Jewish leaders, who are violating Moses and his law. Stephen makes his point by mentioning Abraham as the progenitor of God’s nation. He is asking: Who really represents Abraham’s people? Certainly it is not his listeners, the descendants of Israel, a nation that continually rejects Moses and God. Rather, God’s (Abraham’s) people are those who accept “the Righteous One” and follow the Holy Spirit (7:51-52).

Luke wants to show that far from “blaspheming God and Moses” (6:11), the Messianists are actually far more faithful than are their opponents to the genuine story of God and his prophets, above all the prophet Moses. He does this, in short, by reading the biblical story in terms not of commandments and shrines, but in terms of promise and fulfillment, of prophetic sendings, and the challenge to obedience. [Johnson, 135.]

The facts of Israel’s history that Stephen recites were familiar to his listeners. Jewish rabbis, pundits and teachers often recite elements of the story of Israel to support some particular understanding of it. Thus, Stephen’s listeners are quite aware of his point in retelling the biblical story. What is radically different about the content of Stephen’s speech is its insistence that the Jews are not truly obedient to God! He is swimming in dangerous waters, for this accusation goes against the popular Jewish understanding of themselves as God’s people. Stephen speech drills home one main point: those who claim to be the people of God have never obeyed in faith. His listeners always reject the saving message of God.

Stephen’s speech differs sharply from previous speeches in Acts. He is the first Christian speaker to challenge Jewish institutions, the law and the temple. In this speech he also challenges the Jews, not only as those who rejected their Messiah, but as a people who have failed to respond to God throughout their history. In short, those who think they are a people of God, are not his people.

Commentators also see Stephen as “the first to challenge Christianity’s dependence on Jewish institutions.” [Neil, 116.] Before Stephen, the church assumed itself to be merely an extension of the Jewish nation, a kind of righteous remnant within it, to bring Israel back to a worship of God. Stephen shocks his listeners by saying Israel, as a whole, had never truly worshiped God to begin with.

Staggering implications (7:7)

Before Stephen, the church thought of Jesus simply as the Jewish Messiah. After Stephen, it became clearer that he is the Savior of all peoples, not just of the Jews. The implications are staggering. Stephen’s speech suggests a world mission not just to scattered Jews, but to all ethnic groups. In the words of David J. Williams, Stephen was

a pioneer and in some ways an exemplar of the new direction that the church was to take. He was, so to speak, the connecting link between Peter and Paul — a link indispensable to the chain of salvation history that God was forging. [Williams, 130-131.]

Stephen’s speech indicates that the church should think about turning away from Jerusalem and the temple. It is time to evangelize other places besides Jerusalem — and this is exactly what will soon be done (8:1). Stephen’s speech implies that Jewish institutions are of no value in themselves. They need to be left behind or seen in a new spiritual light. Most of all, the church is not just an extension of a righteous remnant within Judaism. It actually forms a new people of the Spirit.

There is an interesting aspect to Stephen’s speech that implies that evangelization and theology must move beyond Jerusalem. He shows that God’s activity in saving Israel occurred outside of Jerusalem and Judea. God appeared to Abraham while he was in Mesopotamia and Haran (7:2, 4). God rescued Joseph while he was in Egypt (7:10). Moses was called in Midian, near Mount Sinai (7:30). Israel was saved while in Egypt and protected in the wilderness (7:36). In Stephen’s examples, God’s work and calling took place outside of the promised land. He met his people, not just in a temple in Jerusalem, but anywhere he pleased. From this it can be surmised that God is an international God interested in all people. The point is that God’s presence and calling are not restricted to the land of Israel, or to one ethnic group, or a temple.

Stephen is arguing against a superstitious veneration of the temple and of Jerusalem. God’s saving activity can take place anywhere. Thus, the church should be looking for a people (wherever they may be) who are willing to be submissive to the lead of the Holy Spirit.

Stephen’s speech must be seen against the backdrop of then currently esteemed institutions in Judaism. Richard Longenecker points out that “before the Fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the three great pillars of popular Jewish piety were (1) the land, (2) the law, and (3) the temple.” [Longenecker, 337.] Stephen’s speech alerts his hearers to a deception about these venerated institutions. The Jews believe that God is present with them — with their group — because he is present in their land, their law and their temple. Yet, they were neglecting to look at themselves — that God needs to be present in their thoughts and actions, wherever they are.

Stephen is not denouncing the law or the land, not even the temple. (He argues that the ancient Israelites were wrong to reject Moses.) Rather, Stephen is chastising his hearers for missing the obvious: they are sinners (as their fathers were) and need a Savior. By discussing Israel’s sinful history, Stephen demonstrates that the Jews need a Savior. There’s a great message in Stephen’s sermon for all generations. As Christians we must not put faith in our group, our beliefs or institutions. Otherwise, we may forget that, as sinners, we also need a living Savior. Nor should we assume that God is only with us, and is not working anywhere else. Stephen is pointing out that we all need to put our faith in the Righteous One.

However, it is curious that Stephen does not mention the name of Christ in his speech, nor his resurrection (but we should also note that Stephen did not get a chance to finish his speech). This is in contrast to previous speeches in Acts, which focus on a glorified Jesus. Just before his speech was cut short by the angry mob, he condemned his listeners for betraying and murdering “the Righteous One,” foretold in their own Scriptures (7:52) — a clear reference to the death of the Messiah.

Perhaps if Stephen could continue talking, he would focus on the resurrected and ascended Christ. But even without this emphasis, it is still clear where Stephen is going. Jewish faith in itself — and its institutions — as defining the people of God needs to be radically altered to make Jesus the center of worship.

Abraham (7:2-8)

Stephen begins his history of Israel at its most fundamental place, with God’s call of Abraham. One of Stephen’s objectives is to show that God does not live in the Jerusalem temple (7:48). So here he says that the “God of glory” appeared to Abraham — not in Jerusalem, but in pagan Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and northeastern Syria).

The Jews associate the glory of God — the Shekinah — with the moveable tabernacle in the wilderness (Exodus 25:840:34-38), and later the temple (Ezekiel 43:24). So right at the beginning of his speech Stephen establishes that God needs neither tent nor temple to work with human beings. God’s self-revelation is not limited to the land of the Jews, certainly not to Jerusalem and the temple. Stephen draws his listeners to the important actor in the story — God.

God is the first subject mentioned (7:2) and his are all the main actions: God appears (7:3), speaks (7:3, 6), moves (7:4), gives an inheritance (7:5), promises (7:5), judges (7:7), gives a covenant (7:8). Luke does not emphasize Abraham’s faith, indeed does not even mention it. Abraham merely goes and dwells (7:4), begets and circumcises (7:8). The focus is on God’s promise and the way it will reach fulfillment in a time beyond Abraham. God appears where and when he wishes, directs and moves people, and issues promises that are open-ended, to be fulfilled in often surprising ways. [Johnson, 121.]

Stephen respectfully calls the Sanhedrin members “brothers and fathers” (7:2). He also refers to Abraham as “our father.” For the moment, Stephen is framing the debate in the context of a family quarrel. Stephen places himself at one with the Sanhedrin throughout the speech by using this terminology (7:11, 12, 19, 38, 44, 45). Not until the end of his speech, when he delivers a final stinging rebuke, does he say “your fathers,” this time referring to Israelites throughout the ages, not the patriarchs.

Some questions (7:2-8)

Commentators pose some questions about the biblical quotations, numbers and chronology in Stephen’s speech. The difficulties are technical and do not affect the main thrust of the speech, or its important points. We will consider briefly some of the questions. These can point to a possible solution of the others.

One of these questions concerns the place of Abraham’s calling. Stephen states that God’s glory appeared to Abraham in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran (7:2). (Abraham’s family originally came from the Mesopotamian city of Ur.) The story of Abraham’s call in Genesis 11:27-5 seems to contradict Acts and implies that God’s call was given in Haran, not in Mesopotamia. However, Abraham’s call occurred in Ur as much as it did in Haran, and other Old Testament passages verify this. [Genesis 15:7Joshua 24:3Nehemiah 9:7.] Jewish tradition also agreed on this. [Philo, On Abraham 70-72; Josephus, Antiquities 1:154-157.] Abraham’s original call came in the city of Ur. After he moved to Haran, Abraham received a similar divine message.

Another difficulty in Stephen’s speech concerns numbers. He says that the Israelites were mistreated and enslaved in Egypt for 400 years (7:6). His phraseology seems to be taken from Genesis 15:14, which concurs on the number as being 400 years. However, according to Exodus 12:40, Israel’s sojourning in Egypt lasted 430 years. Both Genesis and Stephen are using 400 as a round number, not a precise span. For the purpose of Stephen’s speech, a round number is all that is needed. The period Israel spent in Egypt was actually shorter. Galatians 3:16-17 says that 430 years ran from the original covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12:3713:15) to the giving of the law after the Exodus. Abraham and his descendants were strangers in the land for 430 years, and most of that time period was characterized by mistreatment.

Joseph (7:9-16)

Though the patriarchs — Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his sons — are all mentioned by Stephen, Joseph is the real focus of the story. Joseph’s ten older brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt. But later Joseph became the prime minister of the nation. Meanwhile, a famine occurred in Egypt and Canaan. Joseph had stored enough food during the seven years of bounteous crops to see Egypt through the famine. Canaan was not so fortunate. Jacob and his brothers went to Egypt to buy food.

Joseph is the key to this part of Stephen’s story. Earlier, Stephen painted Abraham as a man willing to answer the call of God and go where he was instructed. In the same way, Stephen shows Joseph to be a man of faith. And it is through faith that “God was with him and rescued him from all his troubles” (7:9-10). In the account of Abraham, Stephen shows God acting outside of the Holy Land, in Haran. Now he makes the point that God was with Joseph and his brothers in Egypt, again outside the Promised Land. Indeed, the name “Egypt” is repeated six times for emphasis in verses 9-16. Stephen is trying to make a point.

God did not save Jacob and his sons from famine in their new homeland. Rather, they had go to Egypt — where Joseph was rescued by God — in order to get food. Then, the entire family settled outside of Canaan, in a particularly fruitful part of Egypt. There they all died. Stephen is continuing to exploit the account of Israel’s history to show that God saves people outside of Judea and Jerusalem. The point is that God can work with individuals anywhere he chooses, and in whatever way he chooses.

Commentators also see parallels in the story of Joseph and the story of Jesus. Joseph is rejected by his brothers, just as Jesus is rejected by his own people (John 1:11). Joseph is thrown into a pit (the grave?) but God rescues him out of it. Though he is rejected by his own, strangers receive him (the Gentiles). Finally, Joseph is raised up to be the ruler, even as Christ has been glorified by God with all power over the nations.

The two visits (7:11-13)

Stephen even exploits the double visit of Jacob and his sons to Egypt to buy food. The brothers did not recognize Joseph on the first visit, an aspect of the story Stephen’s listeners would be aware of. “Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him” (Genesis 42:8). However, “On their second visit, Joseph told his brothers who he was” (7:13). It is only because Joseph made himself known to them — and which made it possible for them to recognize him — could they be saved. Likewise, Jesus was rejected on his “first visit” in the incarnation. But there is an opportunity to recognize and accept him now on his “second visit” through the preaching of the church.

In Stephen’s story the inability of Israel to recognize God’s servant on the first visit was true for Joseph, Moses and the Righteous One (Jesus). This drives home the point that the Jews did not recognize their saviors.

In the Joseph story…Luke shows the pattern that will be developed even more fully in his description of Moses, and which will structure his portrayal of Jesus as the prophet like Moses: the rejected and rescued savior, the double visitation with the possibility of further acceptance or rejection. [Johnson, 121-122.]

Some questions (7:14-15)

As in the Abraham panel, there are some technical difficulties in the Joseph story as well. For one, Stephen says that the number of people who went to Egypt was 75 (7:14). However, the figure in Genesis 46:27 is given as 70 — 66 individuals plus Jacob, Joseph and Joseph’s two sons born in Egypt. Of course, when we say Genesis 46:27 gives the number as 70 (see alsoExodus 1:5), we are referring to English translations, which are based on the Hebrew Masoretic [The Masoretes were Jewish scholars who copied the Hebrew Scriptures in the Middle Ages.] textual tradition.

However, the Septuagint Greek version of Genesis 46:27 (sometimes called “the Bible of the early Christian church”) gives the number of people going down to Egypt as 75. It arrives at this figure by omitting Jacob and Joseph but including nine sons of Joseph in the total. Exodus 2:1 in this version also has the number 75. Stephen, a Greek-speaking Hellenist, was almost certainly following the text of the Septuagint version.

Buried in Abraham’s tomb (7:16)

A second problem in this section concerns the place of burial of Abraham and his descendants. Stephen says that Jacob “and our fathers” are buried in a tomb in Shechem, which Abraham purchased from the sons of Hamor (7:16). However, the story is more complicated in the Old Testament. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were buried in the cave of Machpelah near Hebron, a plot Abraham had purchased from Ephron the Hittite (Genesis 23:1-2049:29-3250:13), and which is in Judea. Joseph, on the other hand, was buried at Shechem (Joshua 24:32) in a plot Jacob had purchased from the sons of Hamor (Genesis 33:18-20 with Joshua 24:32).

It has been suggested that Stephen is simply condensing the two accounts of burial property purchases, one near Hebron and the other in Shechem. He did a similar thing in describing the two calls of Abraham at Ur and Haran as one. A variant explanation is that Stephen may be following a tradition that makes Shechem the burial place for the entire family.

However, Stephen may have an important purpose in singling out Shechem as the burial place. He is giving a speech to the leading Jews of Jerusalem, who hold their land in great esteem. But Stephen points out that the patriarchs are buried in Shechem, in the territory of the Samaritans. If the patriarchs allowed themselves to be buried in Shechem — and proper burial was important to Jews — it implies again that God can work anywhere. The point is, one need not be buried on “holy ground” to be resurrected to life. Perhaps we can also see in the mention of Samaritan territory a clue to the coming evangelization of Samaria (8:5-25).

Moses (7:20-43)

Stephen now turns to the story of Moses. This is the longest and most complex of the sections on Israel’s history. Moses’ life is discussed in three parts, each totaling 40 years (7:20-29; 30-35; 36-43). What is striking is the disproportionate emphasis on Moses. By comparison there are only two references to the Messiah, and those only in an indirect way. The Messiah is called the Prophet-like-Moses (from Deuteronomy 18:15) and the Righteous One, but not directly as either Christ or Jesus (7:37; 52).

There is a good reason for Stephen’s emphasis on Moses. He was accused of blasphemy against Moses” and saying that Jesus would “change the customs Moses handed down to us” (6:11, 14). In the speech, Stephen turns the accusation against those who had accused him. It is not he but the nation of Israel that is in rebellion against Moses, and they have been throughout their history (7:9, 35, 39, 51, 52).

Luke alerted us to the theme that a prophet like Moses would one day appear, when he earlier captured a point Peter made in the temple courts (3:22). Peter said that the Jews’ appointed Messiah ascended until the time when God would restore all things. At that juncture Peter referred to Moses’ statement that God will raise up a prophet like him from among the people — and that he must be listened to. Now Stephen reminds his hearers that Moses prophesied of the coming of a prophet like himself. Thus, they ought not reject outright the claims that Jesus fulfills the requirements.

As in the case of Joseph, Moses becomes a prototype of Christ in Luke’s account. As Moses narrowly escaped death at the hands of Pharaoh (7:21), the infant Jesus was saved from Herod. Moses was “no ordinary child” (7:20). So was Jesus (Luke 2:52). Moses grew in wisdom and stature (7:22). So did Jesus (Luke 2:52). Moses was mighty in word and deed. Luke says the same thing of Jesus (Luke 24:19). Moses urged two fighting Israelites to make peace (7:26). The theme of peace was characteristic of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 1:792:1429Acts 10:36). And, most directly, Moses is said to be a type of the Prophet-Messiah (Acts 7:37).

Stephen says that Moses “thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not” (7:25). This Moses-rejection theme is strong in Stephen’s speech (7:23-29; 35). Like Moses, Jesus was sent to save his own people, but they rejected him. Stephen chastises the Sanhedrin for rejecting the Righteous One (Jesus) in the same way that their ancestors failed to recognize who Moses was (7:52).

Luke would undoubtedly expect his Christian readers to see here a parallel between Moses and Jesus as the saviors of God’s people, whether or not Stephen’s hearers would catch the point: the behavior of the Jews in refusing to recognize Jesus as Savior was of a piece with their earlier rejection of Moses (7:52). [Marshall, 140.]

In his speech, Stephen emphasizes Israel’s rejection of God, of the law, and especially their Messiah. Thus, he draws a strong parallel between Israel’s treatment of Moses and the Jews’ treatment of Jesus. Stephen will drive this point home in a final, scathing indictment of the Sanhedrin (7:51-53). Stephen emphasizes that God’s redemptive power was given to his people outside of Judea. In the Moses section this point is driven home by a repetition of non-Holy Land locations in which God interacted with Moses. God raised up Moses in Egypt (7:17-22); he provided for the rejected Moses in Midian (7:29); he commissioned Moses in the desert near Mount Sinai (7:30-34). God pronounced Mount Sinai to be “holy ground.” Even though it is the most important place of Old Testament revelation, Sinai is outside the Holy Land. It has no sanctity of its own (7:30-34).

Stephen notes that Moses was sent back to Egypt — not Israel — to do God’s will. God delivered his people within this pagan nation as well as at the Red Sea and the wilderness (7:35-36).

Contrary to popular piety of the day in its veneration of “the Holy Land”…no place on earth — even though given as an inheritance by God himself — can be claimed to possess such sanctity or be esteemed in such a way as to preempt God’s further working on behalf of his people. By this method Stephen was attempting to clear the way for the proclamation of the centrality of Jesus in the nation’s worship, life and thought. [Longenecker, 341-342.]

As Abraham was called out of the world — out of Ur and Haran — Moses had to flee Egypt to Midian. In a second step, he left Midian, and finally was called out of Egypt with the children of Israel. Stephen is making the point that these men were ready to answer the call to come out of their society and follow God. Is Stephen giving the assembled Sanhedrin a hint that they must think about coming out of their society, which was centered on the temple and the law?

Stephen and the law (7:38-43)

Stephen describes Moses as one to whom an angel spoke on Mount Sinai, and who “received living words to pass on to us” (7:38). Here he counters the charge that he blasphemed Moses and spoke against the law. In effect, he turned the community’s Scriptures upon itself. Stephen speaks in warm tones of Moses as the mediator between God and his people, “the assembly [Greek, ekklesia, which usually means “church”] in the wilderness” (7:38). Christian readers would probably see a parallel between the wandering of Israel in the desert and their own pilgrimage with Jesus through life (Hebrews 12:18-24).

Stephen then points out that Moses “received living words to pass on to us” (7:38). By calling the words “living,” he implies that they have relevance for him and his audience. However, since Moses himself pointed to Someone beyond himself who must be listened to, God’s revelation and work cannot be limited to the law Moses had given the nation (John 1:17). There is additional revelation from God that the people must not reject.

Then comes the turning point in Stephen’s speech. He says of Israel’s reaction to Moses’ teaching and law: “Our ancestors refused to obey him” (7:39). Stephen’s hearers claimed he had blasphemed the law (and, hence, Moses), claiming it was done away by Jesus. Ironically, Stephen retorted, his hearers belong to a nation that had rejected the law from the beginning, and the Prophet when he came. Stephen then catalogues a litany of disobedient acts by the nation in the wilderness. They rejected Moses (hence God) and made an idol — the golden calf — and worshipped it. In their hearts they turned back to Egypt. Thus, “God turned away from them and gave them over to the worship of the sun, moon and stars” (7:42). Stephen quotes Amos 5:25-27 to support his assertion that this particularly detestable form of idolatry caused God to, in effect, to hide himself from Israel.

Stephen deals with the question: with whom is God working? The Jews may offer sacrifices and offerings at the temple, and even consider it as the place of God’s presence. They may venerate the law and be quite zealous for it. But it may be that the Jews are not really acting like God’s people after all. And if they are not, they like ancient Israel may be sent into “exile beyond Babylon” (7:43).

The lesson, of course, is that those who reject the prophet are themselves rejected. When Moses was rejected the first time, he went into exile. Now, when they reject Moses a second time, they go into exile. [Johnson, 132.]

What is it about Moses they reject? Most importantly, they are not listening to the Prophet (Messiah) Moses said must be listened to. Both the Hebrew text and the Septuagint have “Damascus” and not “Babylon” in Amos 5:27, a scripture Stephen quoted in 7:43. Probably the reason Stephen took this liberty with the text is that the Babylonian exile meant more to his hearers, since that is the one the Jews went into and returned from. This use of Scripture reminds us the Bible is a living book, and must be made relevant to the needs of all generations. Babylon was the place “beyond Damascus” that Amos had prophesied.

Stephen is saying that if they do not listen to the Prophet, they will suffer a fate worse than the Babylonian captivity. And as Luke’s readers may know, the Jews by and large do reject Jesus, and a worse fate does befall them. After a ravaging four-year war with the Romans, Jerusalem was captured, and the temple destroyed in A.D. 70, never to be rebuilt.

Tabernacle/temple (7:44-45)

In verse 44 Stephen begins to discuss the “tabernacle of the covenant law,” the movable center of worship the Israelites used in the wilderness. He only briefly mentions Solomon’s temple. The tabernacle was the center and focus of worship in Israel from the time it was made at the beginning of the wilderness wandering until King Solomon’s reign. David wanted to provide a permanent dwelling place for the tabernacle’s furniture, the ark in particular, in Jerusalem (Psalm 132:5). David expressed his desire to build a temple, and the prophet Nathan thought it a good idea (2 Samuel 7:1-3).

However, the word of the Lord came to Nathan with a different message for David regarding a permanent temple. Nathan was told by God to pass the message on to David that he didn’t need a permanent house from which to manifest his glory: “I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling” (verse 6). It would seem that God did not particularly wanta house built in his honor. Instead, God told David that God would build David a “house” — a dynasty (verse 13).

The point of Stephen’s discourse on the tabernacle seems to be that God was better served when his presence was revealed by means of a moveable structure. This would have reduced the tendency to institutionalize worship. It underscores Stephen’s contention that the Jews need to reorient their faith from a temple to the Messiah.

Stephen seems to have viewed the epitome of Jewish worship in terms of the tabernacle, not the temple. Very likely this was because he felt the mobility of the tabernacle was a restraint on the status quo mentality that had grown up around the temple. [Longenecker, 346.]

After tacitly praising the tabernacle era, Stephen proceeds to criticize the Jewish idea of the temple as the high point of their religion. He says of the temple, “The Most High does not live in houses made by human hands” (7:48). To paraphrase his thought, Stephen was saying, “Don’t think that God lives in monuments erected by human beings.” (Paul said the same thing about pagan temples. In Acts 17:24, he said to his audience in Athens: “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.” Jews frequently criticized pagans for their hand-made idols, and Stephen is using the very same word to point out that their temple is also made by human hands.)

But the Jews made the temple their own private preserve. This had the effect in their minds of making God something of a caged bird, whose working was limited to Jerusalem, its institutions, land and people. That would mean that the only way a person could be saved is to become a Jew. But that effectively halts the advance of God’s universal purpose to work with all nations. There is a lesson here for all churches — with their own temples, churches, basilicas, holy places, systems of worship, theology and credos. God can work outside of established religions. He works wherever and however he pleases, and we must not limit him in our minds.

Concession or command? (7:44-50)

The prophets long ago warned the people against a false confidence in the temple and the rituals surrounding it. It was a mistake to think that because God “lived” in the temple, a sinning nation would automatically be preserved (Isaiah 1:10-17Jeremiah 7:1-34). Stephen seems to imply that the temple was more of a concession on God’s part to human desire, than his real purpose. This criticizing attitude toward the temple is new in this early stage of the church. Earlier, Luke had gone out of his way to show the apostles and the church worshipping at the temple.

Stephen adopted a position unlike that of any other writer in the New Testament. Where others saw the temple as having once had a place in the divine economy, though no longer, Stephen saw it as a mistake from the first. In his view, the temple was never intended by God. [Williams, 130.]

A parallel situation to the building of the temple might be Israel’s desire to have a king. God allowed it, and he even chose Israel’s kings, but he was displeased by the situation (1 Samuel 8:1-21). Once the institution was in place, God worked with it, and even spoke of preserving it. But a king brought all the evils of a state apparatus and bureaucracy. It created a government insensitive to the needs of the people and trusting in itself rather than God. Humanity’s experience with all sorts of governments through the ages underscores the validity of the point.

In the same way, the stationary temple created an ossified religious government in Jerusalem, and gave rise to an inflexible state of mind. The temple became the domain of a political-religious machine that took advantage of its people. An unpretentious and mobile tabernacle around which worship was based would have made it more difficult to centralize religious power. A tabernacle that moved from place to place would also remind people that God is not limited to one location. Ironically, this was what Solomon himself said when he dedicated the original temple (1 Kings 8:27), and so did the prophet Isaiah later on (66:1). God is too big to be squeezed into a building. But the point was soon forgotten.

Stephen is re-echoing the thought, plainly saying to the Sanhedrin that temple worship can create a narrow view of God’s salvation, thus limiting his purpose.

The Temple which should have become their greatest blessing was in fact their greatest curse; they had come to worship it instead of worshipping God. They had finished up with a Jewish God who lived in Jerusalem rather than a God of all men whose dwelling was the whole universe. [Barclay, 60.]

Yet, the glory of the Lord had been in Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 8:10). Had Stephen gone too far in his criticism of the temple? David J. Williams points out that the operative word in Stephen’s denunciation of temple worship was the word “live” (7:48). The Jews should not have supposed that God’s presence could be found only in the temple and nowhere else.

Stephen may well have agreed that God could be found in the temple, but this word [live] would suggest that he was confined there, and as Stephen had maintained throughout, that was simply not so. Had not God been found in Mesopotamia, in Egypt, in the desert? [Williams, 142.]

God can be found and worshipped anywhere on the earth, not just in the Jerusalem temple. The logical conclusion is that people of God can be found and have a relationship with him at the “place” where they were, not in a restricted “place,” such as a temple. Jesus stated this principle when he said a time was coming when people would no longer worship the Father in Jerusalem. They would worship him anywhere they happened to be, and do it “in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). One does not need to be in a special place at a special time in special circumstances to worship God. Since the Holy Spirit is given to whomsoever is called and responds to God in faith, there is “a new understanding of ‘the holy place’ in terms of a community (rather than a physical shrine)” (Williams, page 136).

Thus, it is the people of God themselves who constitute “the temple” where God lives through the Holy Spirit. They are “members of his household,” and in Christ they “become a holy temple” (Ephesians 2:19-21). Paul alludes to this principle on several occasions, and it seems to have been the common understanding of the church that it was “God’s temple” (1 Corinthians 3:166:192 Corinthians 6:16). Perhaps Stephen was about to go on to describe what was implied by his criticism of the temple. That is, God’s presence is not in the temple, but he is “dwelling” among people who put their faith in the Righteous One — Jesus.


Acts 7:51-60

Stephen’s indictment (7:51-53)

Stephen seems to break off suddenly from his cataloguing of Israel’s history. He suddenly begins a blistering attack on his hearers. Commentators speculate that Steven’s blunt criticism of the temple may have created a violent clamor in the audience. The commotion in the Sanhedrin may have caused Stephen to break off from his speech, and strongly censure his listeners.

If Stephen had continued his speech, he may have made his point about the temple more clear, and further clarified just who God’s people are. This would have propelled him forward to the usual appeal: accept the resurrected and glorified Christ as Messiah. But Stephen’s speech took a turn into direct denunciation. There is no more talk about the faithful patriarchs being “our fathers.” Now, Stephen talks about his hearers’ ancestors, the sinning Israelites (7:51).

Stephen insists that the Sanhedrin’s refusal to acknowledge Jesus — and his murder — reflected the council’s negative attitude towards God’s messengers throughout Israel’s history. Though Joseph was to be his brothers’ deliverer, they hated him. Moses, who led the emancipation of Israel, was repudiated by the people. The prophets who announced the coming of the Righteous One — and who urged the nation toward faith in God — had been killed by their ancestors (Matthew 23:29-37). Luke had established this point in his Gospel. Luke Timothy Johnson summarizes:

The Pharisees and Lawyers build tombs to the prophets their ancestors killed, and thereby collude in the killing (Luke 11:47-48); they are liable for the blood of all the prophets shed since the creation of the world (11:50); they will kill “the prophets and apostles” the wisdom of God sends to them (11:49); Jerusalem is the “killer of the prophets and stoner of those sent to her” (13:34). [Johnson, 134.]

Stephen says that his listeners are like their fathers in every way. Sin, rebellion against God, and rejection of his purpose characterizes Israel’s history — and the Sanhedrin’s. The council members are stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! (7:51). The Sanhedrin know exactly what Stephen means by this. Such words were often used by God in characterizing Israel’s attitude toward him. [Exodus 33:3534:9Leviticus 26:41Deuteronomy 9:61310:16Jeremiah 4:49:6.] The speech is a bitter and abrupt denunciation of the leaders’ rebellion. His listeners resist the Holy Spirit. They betrayed and murdered the Righteous One, of whom Moses spoke. They are not keeping the law that came from God through angels.

Paul later notes a similar rejection of God’s calling by the Jews. He described the churches in Judea as suffering from the Jews “who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last” (1 Thessalonians 2:15-16).

Stephen is stoned (7:54-58)

Stephen places the death of Jesus squarely on the shoulders of the Sanhedrin, the spiritual leaders of the nation (Luke 24:20Acts 4:105:30). (Peter had been more charitable, saying in Acts 3:17 that the people killed their Savior in ignorance.) The Sanhedrin’s response to Stephen’s speech is rage. When they hear Stephen’s condemnation, they are “furious and gnashed their teeth at him” (7:54). Then comes the coup de grace. At the height of the Sanhedrin’s wrath, Stephen, “full of the Holy Spirit” (7:55), has a vision of the glory of God, and Jesus standing at his right hand.

Just a few years earlier, Jesus stood in front of this same group. The high priest asked Jesus if he were the Messiah. Jesus answered: “I am…and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62). This image of Jesus at God’s right hand is based on Psalm 110:1, a verse frequently used to support Jesus’ Messiahship, particularly his resurrection and glorification (Luke 20:42Acts 2:345:31). In Acts 7:55 Jesus is said to be standing rather than sitting. Both were metaphors for being in the presence of God (Zechariah 3:1-8Isaiah 6:1). But why is he standing? Elsewhere in the New Testament Jesus is sitting (Acts 2:34Mark 16:19Hebrews 1:313).

The thought may be that he had risen to receive Stephen into heaven or to plead his case in the heavenly court, as though two trials were in progress: this one, conducted by the Sanhedrin, and another, which alone would determine Stephen’s fate [Luke 12:8]. [Williams, 146.]

This is also the only time that the phrase “the son of Man” appears in the New Testament outside the Gospels, the only time it is spoken by a disciple. It has its roots in Daniel 7:13. The title is probably meant to convey the fact that Stephen saw Jesus in his role as the spurned Messiah. He was to suffer and be rejected by the Sanhedrin — the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law (Luke 9:22).

This probably explains why the Son of man was seen standing, rather than sitting at God’s right hand (2:34). He is standing as an advocate to plead Stephen’s cause before God and to welcome him into God’s presence. [Marshall, 149.]

Stephen’s vision confirms Jesus’ claim, which the Sanhedrin must have remembered. The Jewish council is being condemned for having rejected their Savior, and having him executed. When Jesus originally told the council that they would see him at God’s right hand, it reacted by saying that Jesus had blasphemed and should be put to death (verse 64). Stephen is now making the same claim for Jesus as Jesus had made for himself. This brings the council to a frenzied hatred. Stephen is judged to be blaspheming, and the penalty for blasphemy was stoning to death (Deuteronomy 13:6).

F.F. Bruce wrote, “Unless the judges were prepared to admit that their former decision was tragically mistaken, they had no option but to find Stephen guilty of blasphemy as well.” [Bruce, 155.] Luke’s account indicates that the Sanhedrin is turning into a vicious mob. “Yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him” (7:57-58). Stephen becomes the first martyr to die for the name of Jesus.

There is no formal trial. A Roman form of execution was not used — Stephen is stoned. Even with a trial and guilty verdict, Rome has not given the Sanhedrin any right to put people to death for this offense, and they are supposed to confer with the Roman authority regarding capital punishment cases (John 18:31). This shows the intense anger of the Sanhedrin — they were so angry that they did not follow proper procedures.

Would the Sanhedrin get into difficulty with the Roman authority for overstepping its legal jurisdiction? Perhaps conditions were such in Judea that Roman power was weak or ineffectual at the time. Josephus describes a similar situation in which the high priest Ananus killed James in A.D. 62, the leader of the Jerusalem church congregation. [Josephus, Antiquities20:200-203; and see Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.23.16.] This may have occurred after the procurator of Judea, Festus, died and before Albinus arrived to assume his jurisdiction.

In the same way, some commentators conjecture that Stephen’s martyrdom may have occurred in the mid-30s, during the final years of Pilate’s governorship over Judea, when his power was growing weaker. Whatever the situation or reason, it appears that the Sanhedrin stoned Stephen to death, usurping Roman law, and got away with it.

Many Christians once held a belief that all Jews were responsible for killing Christ, and thus were guilty of his death. This is a gross misunderstanding. It could equally be said that the Jews and Romans were representing all humanity, and that all humans are guilty of his death. The martyrdom of Jews in numerous pogroms since Christ — often with the church’s complicity — is a blight on Christianity. While Stephen’s speech is “anti-Jewish” in the sense that it condemns the Jewish leaders who were present, it should not be misconstrued as a polemic against all Jews. That is not what Stephen had in mind, as the next verses show. Almost all the early Christians, including Stephen, were Jews. When they use the term “Jews,” it is obvious that they do not mean all Jews. But when non-Jewish people use the term “Jews,” it is not obvious, and needs to be clarified.

“Lord, please forgive them” (7:59-60)

As he lay dying, Stephen asks that the risen Jesus receive his spirit, and that his killers be forgiven. Stephen is following his Savior, who also asks forgiveness for his executioners (Luke 23:34). Stephen shows the same spirit of faith and forgiveness as characterized Jesus. Stephen accepts Jesus’ bid to come and follow him to the ultimate degree. The way Luke crafts the story of Stephen, he emerges as a type of Christ. Detail after detail in Stephen’s sermon and death remind us of the life and particularly the last days and death of Jesus. Luke Timothy Johnson presents a comparative portrait:

As did Jesus, so does Stephen have grace and power, and works wonders and signs among the people (6:8); he enters into dispute with those who challenge him (6:9; see Luke 20:1-7), including those who are sent as spies (6:11; see Luke 20:20). He is arrested (6:12; see Luke 22:54), and brought to trial before the Sanhedrin (6:12-15; see Luke 22:66-71). Stephen has false witnesses accuse him (6:13), an element left out of Luke’s passion narrative, though found in the Synoptic parallels of Mark 14:56 and Matthew 26:59. Stephen is taken out of the city to be executed (7:58) as was Jesus (23:32). At his death…Stephen prays that his spirit be accepted (7:59) as did Jesus (Luke 23:46). Stephen asks forgiveness of his murderers (7:60) as did Jesus (23:34). Stephen is buried by pious people (8:2) as was Jesus (Luke 23:50-55). [Johnson, 143.]

The same power and prophetic spirit that characterize Jesus is at work in his disciples. As he was dying on the cross, Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). But Stephen commits his spirit to Jesus directly. That is a striking difference. Words applied to the Father are now addressed to the Son. For the early church, Jesus was in the role of God, in the sense of being the one who saves us. Even at this early date in its history, the church already had a “high” Christology.

Final thoughts

When Luke writes the book of Acts, somewhere between A.D. 62 and 85, it is becoming increasingly evident that the Jews will not be converted en masse. In fact, Jews continue to be the greatest persecutors of the church. If Luke writes after A.D. 70, then the temple no longer exists. Decades had elapsed, but Jesus neither returned to save the Jews (and the world), nor to glorify his church. No doubt there is great disappointment and wonderment in the church over these matters. The example of Stephen provides a ready case to illustrate the point that the Christian’s duty is to serve God and have faith in Christ. Stephen also provides an example of Luke’s main thesis in Acts. The growth of the church and the spread of the gospel is not the work of human beings. Rather, both increase because the Holy Spirit is at work among his people.


The example of Stephen and Philip is Luke’s way of saying that the story is not about the work of super-star favorites, nor of planned programs. The Holy Spirit is leading the way, opening new vistas of spiritual understanding, thrusting the gospel into new geographical areas. At best, God’s human servants are struggling to keep up the pace. We see this almost amusing pattern throughout the book of Acts.The apostles and the Jerusalem church thought that Stephen was a good choice to be a widows’ helper and to take care of daily assistance (i.e., wait on tables). But he ends up doing nothing of the sort, so far as we can tell. Almost by accident and through the enlightening power of the Holy Spirit, Stephen jumps to the fore in understanding the deepest implications of the gospel message. (Meanwhile, another widow’s helper — Philip — does some of the most amazing miracles in Jesus’ name. He, rather than the Twelve, pushes the gospel out beyond Jerusalem to Samaria and the coast of Judea.)

Stephen’s speech breaks new ground in the church’s understanding of the role of Old Testament tradition for the church. Even though Stephen upholds the validity of Jewish law and worship, he marginalizes it by implying that neither land, law nor the temple are the center of worship. Christ is the center. In fact, Stephen says the Jews have never kept the law (in its real intent) and always resist the Holy Spirit. They did not have the right “mind” to be the people of God, since they lack the Holy Spirit. (Only the new congregation of Israel — the church — had been given the Spirit. At this point is it thoroughly Jewish as well, but that will soon change.)

Stephen carries the message of good news to new levels of understanding as far as what makes any people a people of God. His message also contains the seeds for understanding that Israel’s forms of worship were just that — passing forms of worship. In Christ, a radical reinterpretation of worship, of God’s presence, of his purpose with the human family and so on is needed. The Twelve have so far not said anything about the worship of the Jews as needing a radical transformation. They go to the temple and make it their center of worship, implying its institutions are to continue. They assume the Jews as an ethnic group are the people of God. The only problem is that they were guilty of rejecting and killing their Messiah.

Stephen’s speech presages some dramatic changes in the worship of God. The book of Hebrews, a fundamental assessment of these changes, is a fuller statement of what Stephen pointed to. Ironically, Stephen leaped ahead of the apostles in understanding. Perhaps he did not really foresee all that he pointed to, but we have no way of knowing. Just as the resurrection of Jesus vindicated his message and ministry, the martyrdom of Stephen, and his vision of the risen Jesus, vindicates the accuracy of Stephen’s understanding of the law.

The death of Stephen provides Luke with an important literary transition. With Stephen’s death and his re-evaluation of Jewish faith, the story of the Jerusalem church is complete. Luke has shown how the apostles and others were witnesses in Jerusalem. Now it is time for Luke to show the gospel radiating out to “Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8).

Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012


Acts 7:55-60

At the height of the Sanhedrin’s wrath, Stephen, “full of the Holy Spirit” (7:55), has a vision of the glory of God, and Jesus standing at his right hand.

Just a few years earlier, Jesus stood in front of this same group. The high priest asked Jesus if he were the Messiah. Jesus answered: “I am…and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62). This image of Jesus at God’s right hand is based on Psalm 110:1, a verse frequently used to support Jesus’ Messiahship, particularly his resurrection and glorification (Luke 20:42Acts 2:345:31). In Acts 7:55 Jesus is said to be standing rather than sitting. Both were metaphors for being in the presence of God (Zechariah 3:1-8Isaiah 6:1). But why is he standing? Elsewhere in the New Testament Jesus is sitting (Acts 2:34Mark 16:19Hebrews 1:313).

The thought may be that he had risen to receive Stephen into heaven or to plead his case in the heavenly court, as though two trials were in progress: this one, conducted by the Sanhedrin, and another, which alone would determine Stephen’s fate [Luke 12:8]. [Williams, 146.]

This is also the only time that the phrase “the son of Man” appears in the New Testament outside the Gospels, the only time it is spoken by a disciple. It has its roots in Daniel 7:13. The title is probably meant to convey the fact that Stephen saw Jesus in his role as the spurned Messiah. He was to suffer and be rejected by the Sanhedrin — the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law (Luke 9:22).

This probably explains why the Son of man was seen standing, rather than sitting at God’s right hand (2:34). He is standing as an advocate to plead Stephen’s cause before God and to welcome him into God’s presence. [Marshall, 149.]

Stephen’s vision confirms Jesus’ claim, which the Sanhedrin must have remembered. The Jewish council is being condemned for having rejected their Savior, and having him executed. When Jesus originally told the council that they would see him at God’s right hand, it reacted by saying that Jesus had blasphemed and should be put to death (verse 64). Stephen is now making the same claim for Jesus as Jesus had made for himself. This brings the council to a frenzied hatred. Stephen is judged to be blaspheming, and the penalty for blasphemy was stoning to death (Deuteronomy 13:6).

F.F. Bruce wrote, “Unless the judges were prepared to admit that their former decision was tragically mistaken, they had no option but to find Stephen guilty of blasphemy as well.” [Bruce, 155.] Luke’s account indicates that the Sanhedrin is turning into a vicious mob. “Yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him” (7:57-58). Stephen becomes the first martyr to die for the name of Jesus.

There is no formal trial. A Roman form of execution was not used — Stephen is stoned. Even with a trial and guilty verdict, Rome has not given the Sanhedrin any right to put people to death for this offense, and they are supposed to confer with the Roman authority regarding capital punishment cases (John 18:31). This shows the intense anger of the Sanhedrin — they were so angry that they did not follow proper procedures.

Would the Sanhedrin get into difficulty with the Roman authority for overstepping its legal jurisdiction? Perhaps conditions were such in Judea that Roman power was weak or ineffectual at the time. Josephus describes a similar situation in which the high priest Ananus killed James in A.D. 62, the leader of the Jerusalem church congregation. [Josephus, Antiquities20:200-203; and see Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.23.16.] This may have occurred after the procurator of Judea, Festus, died and before Albinus arrived to assume his jurisdiction.

In the same way, some commentators conjecture that Stephen’s martyrdom may have occurred in the mid-30s, during the final years of Pilate’s governorship over Judea, when his power was growing weaker. Whatever the situation or reason, it appears that the Sanhedrin stoned Stephen to death, usurping Roman law, and got away with it.

Many Christians once held a belief that all Jews were responsible for killing Christ, and thus were guilty of his death. This is a gross misunderstanding. It could equally be said that the Jews and Romans were representing all humanity, and that all humans are guilty of his death. The martyrdom of Jews in numerous pogroms since Christ — often with the church’s complicity — is a blight on Christianity. While Stephen’s speech is “anti-Jewish” in the sense that it condemns the Jewish leaders who were present, it should not be misconstrued as a polemic against all Jews. That is not what Stephen had in mind, as the next verses show. Almost all the early Christians, including Stephen, were Jews. When they use the term “Jews,” it is obvious that they do not mean all Jews. But when non-Jewish people use the term “Jews,” it is not obvious, and needs to be clarified.

“Lord, please forgive them” (7:59-60)

As he lay dying, Stephen asks that the risen Jesus receive his spirit, and that his killers be forgiven. Stephen is following his Savior, who also asks forgiveness for his executioners (Luke 23:34). Stephen shows the same spirit of faith and forgiveness as characterized Jesus. Stephen accepts Jesus’ bid to come and follow him to the ultimate degree. The way Luke crafts the story of Stephen, he emerges as a type of Christ. Detail after detail in Stephen’s sermon and death remind us of the life and particularly the last days and death of Jesus. Luke Timothy Johnson presents a comparative portrait:

As did Jesus, so does Stephen have grace and power, and works wonders and signs among the people (6:8); he enters into dispute with those who challenge him (6:9; see Luke 20:1-7), including those who are sent as spies (6:11; see Luke 20:20). He is arrested (6:12; see Luke 22:54), and brought to trial before the Sanhedrin (6:12-15; see Luke 22:66-71). Stephen has false witnesses accuse him (6:13), an element left out of Luke’s passion narrative, though found in the Synoptic parallels of Mark 14:56and Matthew 26:59. Stephen is taken out of the city to be executed (7:58) as was Jesus (23:32). At his death…Stephen prays that his spirit be accepted (7:59) as did Jesus (Luke 23:46). Stephen asks forgiveness of his murderers (7:60) as did Jesus (23:34). Stephen is buried by pious people (8:2) as was Jesus (Luke 23:50-55). [Johnson, 143.]

The same power and prophetic spirit that characterize Jesus is at work in his disciples. As he was dying on the cross, Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). But Stephen commits his spirit to Jesus directly. That is a striking difference. Words applied to the Father are now addressed to the Son. For the early church, Jesus was in the role of God, in the sense of being the one who saves us. Even at this early date in its history, the church already had a “high” Christology.

Final thoughts

When Luke writes the book of Acts, somewhere between A.D. 62 and 85, it is becoming increasingly evident that the Jews will not be converted en masse. In fact, Jews continue to be the greatest persecutors of the church. If Luke writes after A.D. 70, then the temple no longer exists. Decades had elapsed, but Jesus neither returned to save the Jews (and the world), nor to glorify his church. No doubt there is great disappointment and wonderment in the church over these matters. The example of Stephen provides a ready case to illustrate the point that the Christian’s duty is to serve God and have faith in Christ. Stephen also provides an example of Luke’s main thesis in Acts. The growth of the church and the spread of the gospel is not the work of human beings. Rather, both increase because the Holy Spirit is at work among his people.

Commentaries on Acts of the Apostles

The apostles and the Jerusalem church thought that Stephen was a good choice to be a widows’ helper and to take care of daily assistance (i.e., wait on tables). But he ends up doing nothing of the sort, so far as we can tell. Almost by accident and through the enlightening power of the Holy Spirit, Stephen jumps to the fore in understanding the deepest implications of the gospel message. (Meanwhile, another widow’s helper — Philip — does some of the most amazing miracles in Jesus’ name. He, rather than the Twelve, pushes the gospel out beyond Jerusalem to Samaria and the coast of Judea.)

The example of Stephen and Philip is Luke’s way of saying that the story is not about the work of super-star favorites, nor of planned programs. The Holy Spirit is leading the way, opening new vistas of spiritual understanding, thrusting the gospel into new geographical areas. At best, God’s human servants are struggling to keep up the pace. We see this almost amusing pattern throughout the book of Acts.

Stephen’s speech breaks new ground in the church’s understanding of the role of Old Testament tradition for the church. Even though Stephen upholds the validity of Jewish law and worship, he marginalizes it by implying that neither land, law nor the temple are the center of worship. Christ is the center. In fact, Stephen says the Jews have never kept the law (in its real intent) and always resist the Holy Spirit. They did not have the right “mind” to be the people of God, since they lack the Holy Spirit. (Only the new congregation of Israel — the church — had been given the Spirit. At this point is it thoroughly Jewish as well, but that will soon change.)

Stephen carries the message of good news to new levels of understanding as far as what makes any people a people of God. His message also contains the seeds for understanding that Israel’s forms of worship were just that — passing forms of worship. In Christ, a radical reinterpretation of worship, of God’s presence, of his purpose with the human family and so on is needed. The Twelve have so far not said anything about the worship of the Jews as needing a radical transformation. They go to the temple and make it their center of worship, implying its institutions are to continue. They assume the Jews as an ethnic group are the people of God. The only problem is that they were guilty of rejecting and killing their Messiah.

Stephen’s speech presages some dramatic changes in the worship of God. The book of Hebrews, a fundamental assessment of these changes, is a fuller statement of what Stephen pointed to. Ironically, Stephen leaped ahead of the apostles in understanding. Perhaps he did not really foresee all that he pointed to, but we have no way of knowing. Just as the resurrection of Jesus vindicated his message and ministry, the martyrdom of Stephen, and his vision of the risen Jesus, vindicates the accuracy of Stephen’s understanding of the law.

The death of Stephen provides Luke with an important literary transition. With Stephen’s death and his re-evaluation of Jewish faith, the story of the Jerusalem church is complete. Luke has shown how the apostles and others were witnesses in Jerusalem. Now it is time for Luke to show the gospel radiating out to “Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8).

Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012


Acts 8:1-13

The Church Expands Into Judea, Galilee and Samaria (Acts 8)

A young man named Saul (8:1)

Luke next introduces the man who will soon become the main character of Acts. He is Saul, later called by his Latin name Paul. (We will call him “Paul” from here on out.) Paul was born in Tarsus, a city in eastern Asia Minor (21:39). He was the son of an orthodox Jewish father — a “Hebrew of Hebrews” [Some commentators suggest that “Hebrew of the Hebrews” means that Paul grew up in Judea, speaking Aramaic like a native.] (Philippians 3:5) and was “a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees” (Acts 23:6).

Paul was trained in a Jerusalem rabbinic school under the respected teacher Gamaliel “in the law of our ancestors” — that is, the ancestral Jewish faith (22:3). He was a brilliant and dedicated student. He would later say of these early years of learning: “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:14).

Technically, Paul is a Hellenistic or Grecian Jew, like Stephen. He knows Greek culture, and is as comfortable in the Hellenistic world as he is in strict Judaism. But he is also part of the Jewish world in Jerusalem, speaking Aramaic like a native. He may have been in the Hellenistic Jewish “Synagogue of Freedmen,” where he heard Stephen speak. Like many Freedmen, Paul was more fanatically Jewish than many Jews native to Jerusalem. Paul may be a member of the Sanhedrin, or perhaps a younger assistant, and if so, he heard Stephen speak before it.

What effect do Stephen’s accusations have on Paul? Paul is suddenly confronted with an incisive attack on the traditions he venerates. He realizes Stephen is no ignorant Galilean. Here is a member of the Nazarean sect who is challenging the very basis of Judaism. There is only one thing to do, and that is to eliminate the threat. Along with the rest of the Sanhedrin, Paul can only cover his ears (7:57) and attack the messenger, Stephen. The Sanhedrin drags Stephen outside the city walls. As they are about to stone Stephen, they take off their outer garments and place them “at the feet” of Paul (7:58), who gives his approval to Stephen’s death (7:60). (It’s intriguing to think that Paul himself may be Luke’s source for the summary of Stephen’s speech, as well as the story of his stoning.)

Luke’s phrase “at his feet” may signify that Paul is a leader of the opposition to Stephen. Perhaps he is instrumental in rushing Stephen and dragging him outside of the city to a place of stoning. Luke uses the expression “at the feet” three times in the story of church members selling their property and bringing the money to the apostles (4:35, 37 and 5:2). There it is clear that the expression is meant to convey the apostles’ leadership.

Luke says Paul “approved of their killing him” (8:1). How we see Paul’s role depends to some degree on how we understand this phrase. Is he merely agreeing with the stoning, or is he in some sense sanctioning, or even motivating it? If Luke uses the expression “at his feet” in the same way here as earlier, it makes Paul more than an uninvolved onlooker. That is, people placing their clothes at Paul’s feet would be offering a gesture to him — recognizing his authority. Paul, then, may be one of the instigators of Stephen’s murder. That he had a leadership role in the Jewish community seems to be corroborated by the fact that he becomes the point man in the persecution of Christians immediately following Stephen’s death (8:3; 9:1-2; 22:4-5).

Whatever Paul’s role, there is no mistaking that he becomes a driving force in persecuting the church in Jerusalem, and in other cities such as Damascus. The havoc he inflicts on the church would disturb him greatly for the rest of his life (Acts 22:201 Timothy 1:13). Paul is here called a “young man” (7:58), but the expression doesn’t help us fix his age very narrowly. It could refer to someone between his mid-20s and 40. Josephus applies the term to Herod Agrippa when he was about 40. [Antiquities 18:197.]

Persecutes the church (8:1-4)

On the very day of Stephen’s death and burial, “A great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem” (8:1). This is Luke’s first use of the word “persecution,” and for the first time, rank-and-file believers are affected. Stephen’s death is not an isolated act of violence. A storm of persecution breaks out against the church in Jerusalem and increases in its fury. The prime agent in this campaign of persecution is Paul. Luke says, “Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison” (8:3). This is a vicious pogrom of intimidation against the Jerusalem church, and Luke tells us Paul “began to destroy the church” (8:3). Williams says:

The word used of Paul’s activities…can describe the devastation caused by an army or a wild beast tearing its meat. It conjures up a terrible picture of the persecutor as he went from house to house — perhaps every known Christian home and at least every known place of Christian assembly…. The relentlessness of the pogrom is underlined by the reference to women being dragged off as well as men. [David J. Williams, Acts, New International Bible Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990), 152.]

Paul was a zealot for Judaism, as he later admits. The proof of his zeal is that he violently persecutes the church (Philippians 3:6Galatians 1:1322). He probably believes that the new faith is a dangerous distortion of the ancestral traditions he believes in — a distortion that endangers the nation’s favor with God. In later years, Paul refers to his devastation of the church as a shameful period in his life (1 Corinthians 15:91 Timothy 1:13). But that understanding comes later, after he is confronted by the risen Christ on the road to Damascus.

Though Luke doesn’t say, it is possible that the persecution is directed specifically against Hellenistic Jewish Christians, and those who share Stephen’s views, those who downplay the importance of the temple. At least, the Hellenistic believers are the ones whose work Luke now begins to describe (8:4; 11:19). Williams says,

We need not understand by the word all that every member of the church left the city; verse 3 shows that they did not. Luke is prone to use “all” in the sense of “many” (see discussion on 9:35). But even of those who left, many may soon have returned. [Ibid., 151.]

This point is indicated by the fact that the apostles, who seem supportive of Jewish institutions such as the temple, are not forced to flee Jerusalem (8:1). Also, we find disciples in Jerusalem a short time later (9:26). This round of persecution apparently doesn’t last long. Luke soon notes that the church throughout Judea, Samaria, and Galilee is living in peace (9:31). Later we will see that the church in Jerusalem is flourishing under the leadership of James. He is called James the Just, and is known for his piety and respect for Jewish institutions. (But even he will be martyred under the urging of the high priest in A.D. 62.) Richard Longenecker points out:

With the martyrdom of Stephen, the Christians of Jerusalem learned the bitter lesson that to espouse a changed relationship to the land, the law, and the temple was (1) to give up the peace of the church and (2) to abandon the Christian mission to Israel. [Richard N. Longenecker, “Acts,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9 (ed. Frank E. Gaebelein; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), page 353.]

Church scatters (8:1, 4)

For the present, those of the Jerusalem church who are successfully hunted down are persecuted, beaten and imprisoned — and possibly killed. Others see what is coming and flee throughout the province of Judea and Samaria (8:1). This flight of church members actually causes the gospel to spread more widely. “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” (8:4). Later in Acts, we learn that people are traveling as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, “spreading the word only among Jews” (11:19). The law of unintended results begins to operate against Saul and the Jewish leaders of Jerusalem. William Willimon writes:

Earlier, it had been predicted that the gospel would be taken by witnesses into “all Judea and Samaria” (1:8). Little did the followers know then that the impetus for this far-flung evangelism would be persecution! These refugees, scattered like seed, take root elsewhere and bear fruit. God is able to use even persecution of his own people to work his purposes. [William Willimon, Acts (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1988), 65]

Philip preaches the gospel (8:5)

The first seven chapters of Acts deal with mission work among Jews in Jerusalem. Luke is now finished with this part of the story, and he begins to describe gospel outreach activities further afield. He mentions that the scattered members of the Jerusalem church flee to other parts of the province of Judea, preaching the gospel as they go (8:1, 4). However, Luke gives no further details about the evangelization of Judea, nor does he mention anything about the churches in other cities of this province. (He is also silent about the work and church in Galilee.)

Rather, Luke turns his attention to Samaria, where scattered members of the Jerusalem church also evangelize. They apparently know that Jesus’ earlier ban on the disciples entering any city of the Samaritans (Matthew 10:5) has been lifted. Samaria was once the capital of the northern ten-tribed House of Israel, which separated from Judah after Solomon died. In the eighth century B.C., the northern kingdom was invaded by Assyrians. Samaria was destroyed and many of the people were deported to other parts of the Assyrian empire (2 Kings 17:17:5-6). The area of Samaria was resettled by peoples from other parts of the empire. The story of this resettlement is told in 2 Kings 17, beginning with verse 24. And in the intervening 700 years, many other peoples moved in and out of the area.

The antagonism between Samaritans and Jews is centuries old, and in some ways it dates back to the Assyrian resettlement. It was intensified when the Samaritans opposed the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple in the fifth century B.C. [Ezra 4:1-16Nehemiah 2:104:1-86:1-1413:4-8.] This caused an unhealed and bitter hatred between Jews and Samaritans that grew more intense through the passage of time. The Samaritans built a temple on their own sacred hill, Gerizim. [Josephus, Antiquities 11:310, 322-24, 246.] The Jews under the Hasmonean ruler John Hyrcanus I (134-104 B.C.) destroyed this temple when they conquered Samaria in the second century B.C. and added this territory to their realm.

But in 63 B.C. the Romans conquered the Jewish kingdom. The Samaritans were liberated from Judean domination, but the unfriendly relations between the two peoples continued.

The intensity of Samaritan feelings against Jerusalem is shown by the Samaritans’ refusal of Herod’s offer of 25 B.C. to rebuild their temple on Mount Gerizim when it was known that he also proposed to rebuild the Jerusalem temple….The Judean antagonism to Samaria is evident as early as Ecclesiasticus 50:25-26, which lumps the Samaritans with the Idumeans and the Philistines as Israel’s three detested nations and then goes on to disparage them further by the epithets “no nation” and “that foolish people that dwell in Shechem.” [Longenecker, 357.]

For Jews to enter Samaria to evangelize the people and bring them into fellowship with Jewish Christians is a bold step indeed. Yet, to Samaria they go!

Mission to Samaria (8:5)

While Luke wants his readers to understand that a number of believers from Jerusalem evangelize Samaria, he describes only the work of Philip. He begins with a simple summary of his activities: “Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there” (8:5).

There is some disagreement as to which city Luke has in mind. Some commentators think it is the capital city of the province. In Old Testament times it was called Samaria, but Herod the Great had rebuilt it, naming it Sebaste. Others believe that Luke has Shechem in mind, because it is the leading Samaritan city. [Josephus, Antiquities 11:340.] Some think the Samaritan city of Gitta is the one Philip goes to. According to Justin Martyr, Gitta was the home town of Simon Magus. [Apology 1.26.] Another candidate for the site of Philip’s original evangelization of Samaria is Sychar, a twin city of Shechem. It is near Shechem and is the site of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman, and many people there believed that Jesus is the Messiah (John 4:5).

Proclaims Christ (8:5-8)

At first glance, we might assume the mission to Samaria is the first step in the evangelization of Gentiles. However, Jews consider the Samaritans more as schismatics than as Gentiles. (Samaritans kept the laws that distinguished Jews from Gentiles. We will later see that Peter had no problem in going to the Samaritans, but he needs a mind-changing vision before he visits a Gentile.) To put it another way, the Samaritans are viewed as “half-breeds,” both religiously and racially, by the Jews. But they were thought of more as heretics from the faith rather than outright pagans.

The Samaritans themselves claimed to belong to the true stock of Israel and to be worshippers of Yahweh; they observed the Sabbath, and practiced circumcision. But they had their own temple on Mount Gerizim, and recognized only the Pentateuch as holy Scripture. They were therefore regarded by the Jews as heretics and schismatics rather than as heathens. [E. William Neil, The Acts of the Apostles, The New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), page 120.]

The Samaritans, like the Jews, expect a deliverer to come, a hope based on Deuteronomy 18:15. Jews call him the Messiah; Samaritans call him the Taheb, or restorer. John alludes to this Samaritan belief in the story of Jesus’ encounter with a woman of Samaria (John 4:25).

It’s surprising that any Jew is willing to go to Samaria to preach the gospel. Jews have no dealings with Samaritans (John 4:9). The hostility between the two groups is highlighted in the Gospel of John. When Jesus’ Jewish critics curse him, they can think of no more vile epithet than to call him a Samaritan (John 8:48). Samaritans are hostile to Jews, as well. Luke records an incident that shows their hostility. The Samaritans of a small village refuse to welcome Jesus and his disciples simply because they are traveling to Jerusalem (Luke 9:52-56).

Yet, the two peoples do have much in common. The Jerusalem missionaries such as Philip can build on the common hope of a coming Messianic restorer. Since the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) are holy to the Samaritans, Stephen can speak of the Messiah as the second Moses. That is precisely what he does. In his preaching, Philip builds on the common hope for a coming Savior when he proclaims Christ (8:5).

Philip, a Hellenistic Jew, also finds himself on common ground with the Samaritans because he, too, is an outcast from Jerusalem. News about the persecution suffered by the Christian Hellenistic Jews has probably reached Samaria, making the Samaritans more disposed to receive the missionaries. If the apostles went to Samaria, associated as they are with Jerusalem and Judaism, their attempts to evangelize might be snubbed. But now, Jews who are also rejected by Judaism (as the Samaritans are) are coming to Samaria. Thus, they share a status out of which a common bond can be forged. God works in mysterious ways!

Historically, the movement of the gospel into Samaria following directly on the heels of the persecution of Hellenistic Jewish Christians in Jerusalem makes a great deal of sense. Doubtless a feeling of kinship was established between the formerly dispossessed Samaritans and the recently dispossessed Christian Hellenists because of Stephen’s opposition to the mentality of mainstream Judaism and its veneration of the Jerusalem temple — an opposition that would have facilitated a favorable response to Philip and his message in Samaria. [Longenecker, 355.]

But we do not want to ascribe the success of the mission to Samaria solely to sociological factors. In the final analysis, Philip’s message finds fertile ground because of the work of the Holy Spirit. Luke writes that when the Samaritans see the miracles, “they all paid close attention to what he said” (8:6). As at Pentecost, it is God’s power that gets the attention of people so that some might become receptive to the gospel message. Luke is telling his readers that Philip’s work is to be seen in continuity with that of Jesus. Like Philip, Jesus performed miraculous works, expelling demons and healing the sick. [Luke 4:33366:187:218:2299:4211:24.]

The work of the Hellenistic Jews (such as Philip) constitutes a new advance of the gospel and the church. But it occurs in Samaria, a quasi-Jewish environment. A dispossessed group, but within the boundaries of ancient Israel, is experiencing the outreach of Christ through the church. However, a mission to pagan Gentiles is yet to occur. Philip’s evangelization of the Samaritans “continues the work of Jesus in reaching out to the marginal and outcast among the people and inviting them to a full participation in the restored people of God forming around the Prophet whom God raised up.” [Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles,Sacra Pagina series, volume 5 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1992), page 151.]

Simon the great power (8:9-13)

Luke intertwines his story of the Samaritan mission with that of a famous local religious personality named Simon, generally called Simon Magus or Simon the Sorcerer (Magician). He looms large in the writings of second-century Christians as the first heretic, troubler of the church, and founder of Gnostic Christianity. The early Christian theologian Irenaeus (A.D. 120-202), bishop of Lyons, France, calls Simon the originator of a number of heresies. [Against Heresies 1:23.] Justin Martyr, a native of Samaria who died around A.D. 165, says that his countrymen revered Simon as “the first god” or God above all. [Apology 1:26.] Luke notes a similar belief about Simon, saying he is known as “the Great Power” (8:10). According to Justin, Simon goes to Rome during the reign of emperor Claudius (A.D. 41-54), where his feats of magic bring him great honor.

Exactly how the Simon of Acts 8 is related to Simon Magus of later legend is not clear. So much myth has gathered around his name that it is difficult to assess his real importance. If the Simon of Acts 8 is Simon Magus, and he is anywhere near as prominent as later writers say he is, then Luke may have good reason to include him in his account. By the time Luke writes, Simon and/or his followers may be well-known opponents of the church. Simon may even be claiming to be part of the church, teaching in its name. After all, “Simon himself believed and was baptized” (8:13). Luke may want to make clear to his readers that Simon has no relationship with the Christian community, nor does he have the approval of the apostles and Holy Spirit — despite the fact that he (or his followers) claim Christian roots.


Acts 8:14-17

Peter and John go to Samaria (8:14)

The overwhelming success of the mission to Samaria soon reaches the ears of the apostles in Jerusalem. Peter and John are sent to Samaria as emissaries of the Jerusalem church (8:14). There are several reasons why the apostles go to Samaria. For one, it is a mission of goodwill — to show that the church is one body. By sending the apostles to Samaria, the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem are demonstrating their brotherly bond with the Samaritan disciples. The Jerusalem church also needs to satisfy itself of the genuineness of the Samaritan conversions. Once they do so, there will be no question of the mother church accepting these new converts.

By going to Samaria, Peter and John are also confirming the validity of the Hellenistic Christians’ ministry of evangelization. During the early years of the church, the apostles seem to exercise a general supervision over the progress of the gospel in general (11:22). But we should also note the collegial method of decision-making at Jerusalem. It is the church that sends the apostles to Samaria (8:14).

Samaritans receive the Spirit (8:15-17)

When the Samaritans are baptized in Jesus’ name (8:12, 16), there is no visible evidence that they receive the Holy Spirit. Only after the apostles pray for the Samaritan disciples and lay hands on them, does God give visible evidence of the Spirit (8:17).

Why this delay? Luke does not hint at any deficiency in the Samaritan believers’ faith. Philip does not perceive any, and neither do the apostles. Nor do the apostles need to enlighten the Samaritans any further about the faith. (On the other hand, it must be pointed out that Simon’s sin is not evident right away, either — it becomes known when he tries to buy the power to give the Holy Spirit.)

An important point may be behind the delay in the evidence of the Holy Spirit for the Samaritan believers. Luke may be implying that the Samaritans need to be brought into the church as a whole, not just into its Hellenistic branch. This does not mean that converts can receive the Holy Spirit only through the apostles. Ananias, with no known ministerial function (and certainly not an apostle), is the human instrument through which the Holy Spirit is given to Paul (9:17). Luke may be trying to show that God wants a link established between Jerusalem and the new venture in Samaria. So God seems to delay the Spirit until the Jerusalem apostles validate the Samaritans’ conversion so they might become fully incorporated into the community of believers.

If the Spirit came on the Samaritans immediately upon their baptism, perhaps they would remain under suspicion by the mother church in Jerusalem. But when two apostles of high standing in the church validate the Samaritans’ conversion, and show that God fully accepts this despised ethnic group, they will also be fully accepted by believers in Jerusalem. Since the apostles are the instruments through whom the Holy Spirit comes, something of a Samaritan “Pentecost” occurs (8:15-17), giving further proof that God is working among the Samaritans. The conclusion is inescapable: God loves Samaritans in the same way that he does Jews.

How do people know that the Samaritans receive the Spirit? Luke’s story assumes it can be known, but he doesn’t say how. Some speculate that the original Pentecost charismatic gifts occur again, such as speaking in other languages. For example, Simon “sees” something when the Spirit is given, and we might wonder what visible manifestation Simon reacts to (8:18). But Luke gives no indication that charismatic gifts are manifested every time converts receive the Spirit. Luke makes no mention of any such gifts in this account. Perhaps the Samaritan converts outwardly exhibit a sense of spiritual joy, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22). Luke and Paul both indicate in their writings that in some cases the evidence of joy can signal the presence of the Spirit (13:52; 16:34; 1 Thessalonians 1:6).

In this case, the Holy Spirit is given only after the laying on of hands. However, we should not assume that this is a requirement in all cases. For example, Luke does not say that the believers converted on Pentecost had hands laid on them (by the apostles or anyone else) before receiving the Spirit (2:38-42). The laying on of hands is also not mentioned in Luke’s account of the household of Cornelius receiving the Spirit (10:44-48). The point is that believing in Christ and being baptized is the fundamental path to “receiving” the Spirit, not laying on of hands. F.F. Bruce writes, “In general, it seems to be assumed throughout the New Testament that those who believe and are baptized have also the Spirit of God.” [F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Rev. ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), page 169.]

The laying on of hands, however, is an important outward symbol of acceptance. The person doing the action represents the community, which extends its acceptance of the people who are putting their faith in Christ. The ceremony is also a symbol of the transfer of God’s power, through the church, to an individual. The laying on of hands is used in various situations in the early church, and so it is today. The apostles pray and lay hands on the Seven, ordaining them to a particular task (6:6). Paul lays his hands on the father of Publius and heals him (28:8). And it is done here so the Samaritans will receive the Spirit.

The elapsed time between the Samaritan’s baptism and receiving of the Spirit has given rise to two widely held beliefs in the Christian world. One is the doctrine of “confirmation” and the other is “the baptism of the Spirit” as a second work of grace after conversion. In some Christian circles a person is baptized, perhaps during infancy, and later in life is “confirmed” in the church by a profession of faith. In a few other denominations, a person may be regarded as converted but later be “confirmed” by exhibiting a special outward manifestation of charismatic gifts.

Nothing of either idea is suggested in Acts 8. The delay in God’s granting the Holy Spirit is simply due to a special situation, as discussed above. It is important that the Samaritan believers be accepted as full converts in the church community, and this requires the involvement of the apostles. Also, the Samaritans are baptized as adults, and they receive the Spirit within days or weeks. Luke does not mention any accompanying charismatic gifts, such as glossolalia, as occurring here. Thus, no doctrinal innovations are intimated in Luke 8, and none should be drawn out of the account.


Acts 8:18-25

Simon tries to buy the Spirit (8:18-25)

Luke next takes up the story of Peter’s encounter with Simon, who tries to buy the power to distribute the Holy Spirit. “Give me also this ability,” he asks, “so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit” (8:19). Simon had no appreciation for the inward operation of the Spirit. He thinks the apostles are using a magic technique worth purchasing, one that will bring him more prestige and power.

Peter flatly rejects Simon’s offer. He says that Simon has “no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God” (8:21). Peter gives Simon a scathing rebuke about his spiritual blindness. The Phillips translation catches the sense of his dire reprimand: “To hell with you and your money!” (8:20). While this is a strong curse, Peter also urges Simon to repent and seek forgiveness because he is “full of bitterness and captive to sin” (8:23).

But Simon doesn’t understand, and has his mind only on physical consequences. “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me,” he answers (8:24), and that’s the last we hear of him in Acts, or anywhere else in the New Testament. Luke concludes the story of the church’s mission to Samaria with a single-sentence summary that hints at a much larger mission in the territory. Peter and John preach the gospel “in many Samaritan villages,” and then return to Jerusalem (8:25).


Acts 8:26-40

An angel directs Philip to Gaza (8:26)

Philip’s role in Samaria may be over, but he is about to play another important part in spreading of the gospel. An angelic messenger appears to Philip and instructs him: “Go south to the road — the desert road — that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza” (8:26). Commentators point out that when Luke wants to stress the presence and activity of God, he often uses an expression like “the angel of the Lord” (as he does in 8:26) rather than “the Spirit of the Lord.” [Some examples are in Luke 1:111326282:91322:43Acts 5:197:3035388:2610:372211:1312:7112327:23.] Used here, the expression is a vivid way of describing Philip’s divine guidance.

This is another opportunity for Luke to stress that the evangelistic work of the church is initiated by God, who sends his divine messenger to Philip. Whatever mission work Philip is about to do is not based on a program the church has thought out. After all, in this case, what would be the point of traveling to a “desert road” that leads to Gaza, and preach the gospel there?

But that’s what Philip is told to do — go down the road that leads to the edge of the desert. (The road from Jerusalem to Gaza is 50 miles long, and leads to the main coastal trade route going to Egypt.) Commentators point out that the word “desert” in Luke’s account can refer either to Gaza or to the road. Most likely the former is in view here. Apparently, the old town of Gaza is referred to as “Desert Gaza,” in distinction to a newer town named Gaza. This is the southernmost of the five main Philistine cites in southwestern Judea. It is also the last settlement before a traveler encounters the barren desert stretching to Egypt.

The Ethiopian official (8:27-28)

As Philip travels the road to “Desert Gaza,” he meets an Ethiopian eunuch. This man is what we might call the Secretary of the Treasury or the Chancellor Exchequer for Kandake, the Ethiopian queen (8:27). As a minister of finance, he is an important official in the queen’s “cabinet.” The Ethiopians are Nubians, living in Southern Egypt and the Sudan, between modern Aswan and Khartoum. (The modern nation of Ethiopia is further south.) Kandake is a dynastic title, such as Pharaoh, not a personal name. All Ethiopian queens have that name. According to ancient writers, the Nubian king is said to be too holy to become involved with profane matters of state, [Strabo, Geography 17.1.54; Pliny the Elder, Natural History 6.186.] so the mother of the king rules on behalf of her son.

Luke says of Kandake’s eunuch that he went “to Jerusalem to worship” (8:27). Therefore, though he is probably a Gentile, he is most likely a proselyte or “God-fearer.” This is indicated by the fact that the eunuch makes a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and is now studying the book of Isaiah. (It would be difficult for a non-Jew to get a copy of the Isaiah scroll, but a minister of finance would no doubt have more ability than the average Gentile.)

Israel’s law excludes the sexually deformed from being able to “enter the assembly of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 23:1), and eunuchs were not allowed in the innermost court of the temple. Yet, Isaiah predicts a time when this ban will be removed (56:3-5). It’s not clear how first-century Judaism regards eunuchs, and whether they are allowed even in the outermost courts. Some commentators feel that Luke does not mean to say that the Ethiopian is truly a “eunuch.”

The word eunuch (eunochos) frequently appears in the LXX and in Greek vernacular writings “for high military and political officials; it does not have to imply emasculation”… Therefore, we are probably justified in taking “eunuch” to be a governmental title in an Oriental kingdom. [Longenecker, 363.]

Other commentators disagree. They point out that both the word “eunuch” and “official” describe the Ethiopian in the same verse (8:27). If “eunuch” simply means “official” here, then Luke would be redundant. Because Luke used both terms in the same sentence, it seems he intends us to understand that the Ethiopian is sexually mutilated, or a eunuch. In ancient times it was common for male servants of a queen to be eunuchs.

Eunuch baptized (8:29-38)

As Philip, at the behest of the Spirit, runs up to the Ethiopian eunuch’s chariot, he hears him reading from the book of Isaiah (8:32-33). It is hardly an accident that at the precise moment of Philip’s arrival the Ethiopian is reading a passage that makes him open to the good news about Jesus. The Ethiopian is reading from the Suffering Servant section in Isaiah 53. As Philip approaches the chariot, the eunuch asks him whether the prophet is talking about himself or someone else (8:34).

Philip immediately takes advantage of this God-given opportunity. “Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus” (8:35). Jesus quoted from Isaiah 53, saying it would be fulfilled in his death (Luke 22:37). Now, Philip is preaching the same message. Philip, like Peter, apparently tells the eunuch that anyone who accepts Jesus as Messiah should be baptized for the remission of sins, and will be filled with the Holy Spirit (2:38). Thus, when somewhere along the road the Ethiopian sees water (a rarity in this area, except for the Mediterranean Sea), he asks for baptism.

The eunuch halts his chariot, goes to the water and both of them go “down into the water and Philip baptized him” (8:38). The phrase “went down into” implies that the baptism was done by immersion. Jesus himself was baptized this way (Mark 1:9-10). The fact that the official goes “on his way rejoicing” indicates that he has received the Holy Spirit (8:39). Luke often sees joy as a response to God’s work in the world. [Luke 1:14282:106:238:1310:172013:1715:57103219:63724:4152.]

Africa has now been reached by the gospel in the person of the Ethiopian eunuch. In him, the prophecy of Psalm 68:31 is beginning to be fulfilled: “Ethiopia [Cush] will quickly stretch out her hands to God” (New King James Version).

The evangelization and baptism of a high-ranking Ethiopian represents another step in the advance of the gospel from its Jewish origins to a wider Gentile world. However, the church is still far from engaging in a full-bore missions effort directly to pagan Gentiles. “As with the Samaritans, the conversion of the Ethiopian does not yet represent a formal opening to the Gentiles, but rather to those who were marginalized within the people of God” [Johnson, page 160].Most modern translations omit verse 37 from the text and place it in a footnote, because the oldest manuscripts do not have this verse. The verse reads: “Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ The eunuch answered, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’” The verse simply makes explicit something that the other verses imply; it seems that an early scribe thought it should be more explicit, added it to the text, and many copyists followed suit.

Angel takes Philip away (8:39)

Having fulfilled his role with the Ethiopian eunuch, Philip is suddenly snatched away by “the Spirit of the Lord” (8:39). The story of the eunuch’s conversion ends where it began, with God’s presence and direct intervention. Luke is again making the point that the gospel is being preached and people are being converted at God’s direction, not by human desire.

The presence of the gospel out here in the desert of Gaza with this Ethiopian of somewhat murky physical, religious, and ethnic status can only be attributed to the constant prodding of the Spirit. If the good news is being preached out there, it is the work of God, not of people. No triumphal, crusading enthusiasm has motivated the church up to this point, no mushy all embracing desire to be inclusive of everyone and everything. Rather, in being obedient to the Spirit, preachers like Philip find themselves in the oddest of situations with the most surprising sorts of people. [Willimon, Acts, page 72.]

Philip preaches along the coast (8:40)

Luke next recounts Philip’s sudden appearance at the coastal town of Azotus. Philip travels in the area, “preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea” (8:40). Azotus is the old Philistine city of Ashdod, about 20 miles north of Gaza. Philip works his way north along the coastal road that runs through the coastal plain. He apparently preaches the gospel in such coastal cities as Lydda, Joppa, Jamnia and Antipatris. He probably spends considerable time in each town. What we have in Luke’s brief notation is a missionary journey of substantial duration. Luke passes over in only one sentence the details of what may have been a months-long work.

Philip’s final destination is Caesarea, which is either where he lived or later settled. After arriving in Caesarea, he disappears from Luke’s account for 20 years. He reappears as Paul’s host in chapter 21. By this time he is the father of four daughters, all four of whom prophesy (21:8-9).

Philip may have been Luke’s source for much of the information in Acts 8. Luke is with Paul when they stay with Philip’s family in Caesarea before the final Jerusalem visit (21:8). He would have ample opportunity to discuss the events described in chapter 8. If Luke gathers his material at a later time, he could still interview one or more of Philip’s daughters about the early days of the church.

Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012


Acts 9:1-6

The conversion of Paul (Acts 9)

Persecution threatened in other cities (9:1-2)

Luke’s account now switches to describe the conversion of Paul, who will dominate the rest of Acts. While making Paul the focus of his interest, Luke never loses sight of the fact that the Holy Spirit, and hence God, is the true center of his story.

However important Paul turns out to be, he is not Luke’s main character. He is but one of the human characters who enact the larger drama of God’s fidelity to his promises. Luke’s concern therefore is for the more properly religious dimensions of the event: how this unexpected turnabout was caused by the direct intervention of the risen Jesus in history, and how the “conversion” of Paul was in reality the call of a prophet. [Johnson, 167.]

Luke begins his description of Paul’s conversion in chapter 9 by continuing the story of his persecution of the church. “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples,” says Luke of Paul’s campaign of persecution against the church in Jerusalem (9:1).

Paul even travels to other towns, Damascus in particular, in order to round up Christians. As he later tells King Agrippa, “I even hunted them down in foreign cities” (26:11). To Paul, stamping out the Christians is a necessary part of doing God’s will. They are teaching a blasphemous heresy that threatens the people of God (the Jews) and the sanctity of the law and temple. It is surely God’s will that such people should be silenced.

Paul can justify his actions against the church by looking to the heroes of Israel’s history. Phinehas killed an Israelite man and Midianite woman who were defying the law of God (Numbers 25:6-15). Elijah killed the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:40). Mattathias, the father of the Maccabees, used violence to root out the enemies of God and apostates among the people (1 Maccabees 2:1-2842-48).

Thus it is that Paul sets out toward Damascus with the zeal of an avenging prophet. He has letters from the high priest with authority to extradite any Christians he finds in the synagogues of Damascus. Paul will capture them and return them to Jerusalem for trial and punishment (9:2). Most likely those being hunted down are the Hellenistic Christians who fled Jerusalem, not those who lived permanently in Damascus. So far as we know, the high priest has no direct authority over the latter, since they are not in his immediate jurisdiction.

Later, Paul explains that the entire council signed the order of extradition he was given (22:5). Luke is pointing out that the Jewish leaders continue to be in the forefront of trying to eradicate the new sect of Jesus believers. Some questions have arisen over exactly what powers of extradition the letters from the high priest gave Paul. Two centuries earlier, Rome had decreed that Jews who fled to Egypt could be extradited to Jerusalem (1 Maccabees 15:15-24). They were then to be punished according to Jewish law.

Whether this authority to extradite exists in the time of Paul is not known. It’s possible the high priest still holds the power of extradition from the Roman authorities. If not, the Sanhedrin may be relying on its clout with local synagogues to cooperate in this matter. The political situation in Judea is unstable, with the Roman governor not wanting to intervene in “Jewish matters.” Thus, the council may hope to punish as many Christians as possible without the advance knowledge or intervention of the Roman authority.

“The way” (9:2)

In his account, Luke refers to the threatened Christian community as “the Way” (9:2). It seems to be a name by which the church identifies itself. Luke uses the term several times in Acts (19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). The name recalls the words of Jesus when he said, “I am the way” (John 14:6). The Qumran community also refers to its mode of life as “the way.” To them “the way” points to the community’s strict obedience to the Law of Moses. However, the Christians stress faith in the salvation brought by Jesus, who was “the Way.”

It’s easy to see why the word “way” or “road” is a Christian metaphor for “manner of life.” It has to do with the believers’ understanding that a person needs to walk in the path of God’s salvation, in obedience and faith to him. Opponents, of course, think that the church is walking the wrong path. Outsiders refer to the church not as “the Way” but as “the sect of the Nazarenes” (24:5, 14; 28:22).

Interestingly, the church does not seem to refer to itself as “Christian” very often. The term was coined at Syrian Antioch (11:26), by outsiders, and the name appears only twice more in the New Testament (Acts 26:281 Peter 4:16). “Christian” is at first an outsider name for the disciples, not one the community uses for itself.

On the road to Damascus (9:3)

When Luke turns to Paul’s conversion experience, he places him on the highway, near Damascus. Paul has traveled about 150 miles (242 kilometers) from Jerusalem. Damascus is one of the cities of the Decapolis, which is a league of self-governing cities in eastern Syria and the area east of the Jordan river (Matthew 4:25Mark 7:31). Damascus is a thriving commercial center, part of the Roman province of Syria since 64 B.C. The city has a large Nabatean Arab population, a fact that might figure later into this part of Paul’s life. (The Nabatean kingdom stretched from the desert southward to the Red Sea, and its capital was Petra.) Damascus also has a large Jewish population. Josephus says that 10,500 Jews were killed in the city when the Jewish-Roman war broke out in A.D. 66. [Wars 2:561; 7:368.]

The moment of encounter (9:3)

Acts 9 gives us the first of three accounts of Paul’s conversion. The story is also told as part of Paul’s speech before a Jerusalem crowd (22:5-16) and his testimony before Agrippa and Festus (26:12-18). This is one of the most significant events in the early church’s history, and it’s not surprising that Luke gives us three versions of it. Paul himself writes of the importance of his encounter with the risen Jesus on the Damascus road: “God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me” (Galatians 1:15-16).

The three accounts of Paul’s conversion in Acts show some minor variations, mostly in what each adds or omits from the basic story. We’ll refer to a few of these differences (which don’t affect the main story) as we make our way through the account here in chapter 9, and also when we discuss chapters 22 and 26. [A comparison of these three accounts is posted at harmony.]

The disagreement in detail between the three versions…is less significant than what the repetition tells us about Luke’s perception of the event. The turning of a Pharisaic persecutor into the apostle of the Gentiles is a paradox so profound that it requires multiple retellings, with each version bringing out some further nuance of significance. [Johnson, 166.]

As Luke’s story begins, Paul is nearing Damascus when a light suddenly flashes around him. The shock causes him to fall to the ground. That’s when he hears a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (9:4). The men traveling with him, perhaps temple police, stand speechless, as “they heard the sound [Greek, phone] but did not see anyone” (9:7). Luke doesn’t indicate whether Paul’s companions saw the light, but they did not see Christ manifested (9:7).

In the other accounts later in Acts, we find that the bright light flashed, not at night, but at high noon. To Paul it is brighter than the sun, which makes it all the more surprising (26:13). In Acts 22, Paul says the men with him see the light, which chapter 9 doesn’t mention. In this later account, Paul says that the men do not hear the sound, presumably meaning that they do not “understand the voice,” as the NIV puts it (22:9). The Greek word phone can mean either “sound” or “speech.” What apparently happens in this case is that the whole group hears a sound but only Paul understands it as spoken words. Similarly, the group sees the light but only Paul perceives the risen Jesus.

“Why do you persecute me?”

The voice addresses Paul in Aramaic, something we learn from Paul’s account of the event given before Agrippa (26:14). (Is it because this is the language Jesus spoke, or the one Paul spoke as a first language?) “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” the voice asks (9:4). The double name is used for emphasis, and is found in other stories of divine calling, including Abraham’s, Jacob’s and Moses’ (Genesis 22:1146:2Exodus 3:4).

Paul is confused. He doesn’t see himself as persecuting God. Paul thinks he is doing God a service, defending his way against the apostate Christians. Saul then asks, “Who are you, Lord?” Saul doesn’t yet know it is Jesus. He seems to understand his vision as a revelation from God. As the account shows, Paul is open to God’s self-revelation, even though he is unaware of his purpose.

The figure standing before Paul shocks him greatly when he answers, “I am Jesus” (9:5). It is not directly stated in this verse that Paul actually sees the risen Christ, but only that he hears his voice. But it is confirmed soon afterwards, when Luke introduces Ananias (9:17) and Barnabas (9:27) into the account. Ananias refers to “Jesus, who appeared to you” (9:17). It’s clearly stated in the versions of this event Paul gives to Agrippa (26:16) and a Jewish crowd (22:14) that he sees Christ.

When the risen Christ tells Paul he has been persecuting him, he is making an important point. Paul is not rejecting human beings, but by his actions, he is rejecting Christ himself (Luke 10:16). In persecuting the church Paul is persecuting the body of which Jesus is the head. [Romans 12:451 Corinthians 12:12-17Ephesians 5:30Colossians 1:18.] Christ and his church are one, and he has a tangible presence on earth through his believers. Paul learns that these Nazarenes — these followers of Jesus whom he despises — are not confused heretics. They, rather than he and the Sanhedrin, are the people of God, and Paul is the one who is confused.

Saul could not escape the fact that the Jesus whose followers he had been persecuting was alive, exalted, and in some manner to be associated with God the Father, whom Israel worshiped. He, therefore, had to revise his whole estimate of the life, teaching, and death of the Nazarene because God had beyond any question vindicated him. Thus he came to agree with the Christians that Jesus’ death on the cross, rather than discrediting him as an imposter, fulfilled prophecy and was really God’s provision for man’s sin and that Jesus’ resurrection confirmed him as being the nation’s Messiah and mankind’s Lord. [Longenecker, 371.]

This Messiah, the glorified Christ, has now appeared to Paul himself. Paul later stresses the importance of this revelation. He sees the risen and glorified Christ, and this is as real as Christ’s appearances to his disciples after the resurrection. [1 Corinthians 9:115:8-9Galatians 1:11-1215-17.] It is a proof of Paul’s apostleship and of his witness to Christ and the gospel.


Acts 9:1-20

The conversion of Paul (Acts 9)

Persecution threatened in other cities (9:1-2)

Luke’s account now switches to describe the conversion of Paul, who will dominate the rest of Acts. While making Paul the focus of his interest, Luke never loses sight of the fact that the Holy Spirit, and hence God, is the true center of his story.

However important Paul turns out to be, he is not Luke’s main character. He is but one of the human characters who enact the larger drama of God’s fidelity to his promises. Luke’s concern therefore is for the more properly religious dimensions of the event: how this unexpected turnabout was caused by the direct intervention of the risen Jesus in history, and how the “conversion” of Paul was in reality the call of a prophet. [Johnson, 167.]

Luke begins his description of Paul’s conversion in chapter 9 by continuing the story of his persecution of the church. “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples,” says Luke of Paul’s campaign of persecution against the church in Jerusalem (9:1).

Paul even travels to other towns, Damascus in particular, in order to round up Christians. As he later tells King Agrippa, “I even hunted them down in foreign cities” (26:11). To Paul, stamping out the Christians is a necessary part of doing God’s will. They are teaching a blasphemous heresy that threatens the people of God (the Jews) and the sanctity of the law and temple. It is surely God’s will that such people should be silenced.

Paul can justify his actions against the church by looking to the heroes of Israel’s history. Phinehas killed an Israelite man and Midianite woman who were defying the law of God (Numbers 25:6-15). Elijah killed the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:40). Mattathias, the father of the Maccabees, used violence to root out the enemies of God and apostates among the people (1 Maccabees 2:1-2842-48).

Thus it is that Paul sets out toward Damascus with the zeal of an avenging prophet. He has letters from the high priest with authority to extradite any Christians he finds in the synagogues of Damascus. Paul will capture them and return them to Jerusalem for trial and punishment (9:2). Most likely those being hunted down are the Hellenistic Christians who fled Jerusalem, not those who lived permanently in Damascus. So far as we know, the high priest has no direct authority over the latter, since they are not in his immediate jurisdiction.

Later, Paul explains that the entire council signed the order of extradition he was given (22:5). Luke is pointing out that the Jewish leaders continue to be in the forefront of trying to eradicate the new sect of Jesus believers. Some questions have arisen over exactly what powers of extradition the letters from the high priest gave Paul. Two centuries earlier, Rome had decreed that Jews who fled to Egypt could be extradited to Jerusalem (1 Maccabees 15:15-24). They were then to be punished according to Jewish law.

Whether this authority to extradite exists in the time of Paul is not known. It’s possible the high priest still holds the power of extradition from the Roman authorities. If not, the Sanhedrin may be relying on its clout with local synagogues to cooperate in this matter. The political situation in Judea is unstable, with the Roman governor not wanting to intervene in “Jewish matters.” Thus, the council may hope to punish as many Christians as possible without the advance knowledge or intervention of the Roman authority.

“The way” (9:2)

In his account, Luke refers to the threatened Christian community as “the Way” (9:2). It seems to be a name by which the church identifies itself. Luke uses the term several times in Acts (19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). The name recalls the words of Jesus when he said, “I am the way” (John 14:6). The Qumran community also refers to its mode of life as “the way.” To them “the way” points to the community’s strict obedience to the Law of Moses. However, the Christians stress faith in the salvation brought by Jesus, who was “the Way.”

It’s easy to see why the word “way” or “road” is a Christian metaphor for “manner of life.” It has to do with the believers’ understanding that a person needs to walk in the path of God’s salvation, in obedience and faith to him. Opponents, of course, think that the church is walking the wrong path. Outsiders refer to the church not as “the Way” but as “the sect of the Nazarenes” (24:5, 14; 28:22).

Interestingly, the church does not seem to refer to itself as “Christian” very often. The term was coined at Syrian Antioch (11:26), by outsiders, and the name appears only twice more in the New Testament (Acts 26:281 Peter 4:16). “Christian” is at first an outsider name for the disciples, not one the community uses for itself.

On the road to Damascus (9:3)

When Luke turns to Paul’s conversion experience, he places him on the highway, near Damascus. Paul has traveled about 150 miles (242 kilometers) from Jerusalem. Damascus is one of the cities of the Decapolis, which is a league of self-governing cities in eastern Syria and the area east of the Jordan river (Matthew 4:25Mark 7:31). Damascus is a thriving commercial center, part of the Roman province of Syria since 64 B.C. The city has a large Nabatean Arab population, a fact that might figure later into this part of Paul’s life. (The Nabatean kingdom stretched from the desert southward to the Red Sea, and its capital was Petra.) Damascus also has a large Jewish population. Josephus says that 10,500 Jews were killed in the city when the Jewish-Roman war broke out in A.D. 66. [Wars 2:561; 7:368.]

The moment of encounter (9:3)

Acts 9 gives us the first of three accounts of Paul’s conversion. The story is also told as part of Paul’s speech before a Jerusalem crowd (22:5-16) and his testimony before Agrippa and Festus (26:12-18). This is one of the most significant events in the early church’s history, and it’s not surprising that Luke gives us three versions of it. Paul himself writes of the importance of his encounter with the risen Jesus on the Damascus road: “God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me” (Galatians 1:15-16).

The three accounts of Paul’s conversion in Acts show some minor variations, mostly in what each adds or omits from the basic story. We’ll refer to a few of these differences (which don’t affect the main story) as we make our way through the account here in chapter 9, and also when we discuss chapters 22 and 26. [A comparison of these three accounts is posted at harmony.]

The disagreement in detail between the three versions…is less significant than what the repetition tells us about Luke’s perception of the event. The turning of a Pharisaic persecutor into the apostle of the Gentiles is a paradox so profound that it requires multiple retellings, with each version bringing out some further nuance of significance. [Johnson, 166.]

As Luke’s story begins, Paul is nearing Damascus when a light suddenly flashes around him. The shock causes him to fall to the ground. That’s when he hears a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (9:4). The men traveling with him, perhaps temple police, stand speechless, as “they heard the sound [Greek, phone] but did not see anyone” (9:7). Luke doesn’t indicate whether Paul’s companions saw the light, but they did not see Christ manifested (9:7).

In the other accounts later in Acts, we find that the bright light flashed, not at night, but at high noon. To Paul it is brighter than the sun, which makes it all the more surprising (26:13). In Acts 22, Paul says the men with him see the light, which chapter 9 doesn’t mention. In this later account, Paul says that the men do not hear the sound, presumably meaning that they do not “understand the voice,” as the NIV puts it (22:9). The Greek word phone can mean either “sound” or “speech.” What apparently happens in this case is that the whole group hears a sound but only Paul understands it as spoken words. Similarly, the group sees the light but only Paul perceives the risen Jesus.

“Why do you persecute me?”

The voice addresses Paul in Aramaic, something we learn from Paul’s account of the event given before Agrippa (26:14). (Is it because this is the language Jesus spoke, or the one Paul spoke as a first language?) “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” the voice asks (9:4). The double name is used for emphasis, and is found in other stories of divine calling, including Abraham’s, Jacob’s and Moses’ (Genesis 22:1146:2Exodus 3:4).

Paul is confused. He doesn’t see himself as persecuting God. Paul thinks he is doing God a service, defending his way against the apostate Christians. Saul then asks, “Who are you, Lord?” Saul doesn’t yet know it is Jesus. He seems to understand his vision as a revelation from God. As the account shows, Paul is open to God’s self-revelation, even though he is unaware of his purpose.

The figure standing before Paul shocks him greatly when he answers, “I am Jesus” (9:5). It is not directly stated in this verse that Paul actually sees the risen Christ, but only that he hears his voice. But it is confirmed soon afterwards, when Luke introduces Ananias (9:17) and Barnabas (9:27) into the account. Ananias refers to “Jesus, who appeared to you” (9:17). It’s clearly stated in the versions of this event Paul gives to Agrippa (26:16) and a Jewish crowd (22:14) that he sees Christ.

When the risen Christ tells Paul he has been persecuting him, he is making an important point. Paul is not rejecting human beings, but by his actions, he is rejecting Christ himself (Luke 10:16). In persecuting the church Paul is persecuting the body of which Jesus is the head. [Romans 12:451 Corinthians 12:12-17Ephesians 5:30Colossians 1:18.] Christ and his church are one, and he has a tangible presence on earth through his believers. Paul learns that these Nazarenes — these followers of Jesus whom he despises — are not confused heretics. They, rather than he and the Sanhedrin, are the people of God, and Paul is the one who is confused.

Saul could not escape the fact that the Jesus whose followers he had been persecuting was alive, exalted, and in some manner to be associated with God the Father, whom Israel worshiped. He, therefore, had to revise his whole estimate of the life, teaching, and death of the Nazarene because God had beyond any question vindicated him. Thus he came to agree with the Christians that Jesus’ death on the cross, rather than discrediting him as an imposter, fulfilled prophecy and was really God’s provision for man’s sin and that Jesus’ resurrection confirmed him as being the nation’s Messiah and mankind’s Lord. [Longenecker, 371.]

This Messiah, the glorified Christ, has now appeared to Paul himself. Paul later stresses the importance of this revelation. He sees the risen and glorified Christ, and this is as real as Christ’s appearances to his disciples after the resurrection. [1 Corinthians 9:115:8-9Galatians 1:11-1215-17.] It is a proof of Paul’s apostleship and of his witness to Christ and the gospel.

Saul taken to Damascus (9:7-9)

The stunned and shaken Paul struggles to his feet, but he has been blinded by the light (9:8). The men with Paul recover their composure and escort him to a house in Damascus. For the next three days the blind Paul fasts, no doubt meditating on the meaning of his encounter with Jesus.

In Luke’s account in chapter 9, there is no indication that Paul is told anything else about his future commission by the risen Christ on the Damascus road. The later account in Acts 22:10supports this. There, Paul says he is told to get up and go into Damascus. “There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do,” said Jesus. That’s where a man named Ananias enters the stage. The account in Acts 26, however, telescopes the entire incident as though all of Paul’s instruction comes at the time he is struck down (26:18). Paul’s commission to the Gentiles is stated in the following words: “to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (26:18).

Ananias has a vision (9:10-12)

Luke now introduces Ananias as the person through whom God will restore sight to Paul and explain his future. Ananias is a Jewish believer in Jesus who lives in Damascus. Paul calls him “a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there” (22:12). Ananias has a vision from God in which he is told to go to the house of a man named Judas who lives on Straight Street in Damascus (9:11). This street is still one of the main thoroughfares of Damascus, the Darb al-Mustaqim. Tradition says that Judas’ house is at its west end.

Ananias is told that he will find Paul in this house, and he will be praying. Luke portrays Paul as a man of prayer (16:25; 20:36; 22:17) even as Jesus was in his earthly ministry. [Luke 3:216:129:182811:122:41.] Luke also emphasizes that the church itself is a praying body. At crucial points in their personal lives and in the life of the church, the disciples pray for God’s guidance and intervention. [Acts 10:2913:2-314:2320:3621:528:8.]

Afraid of Paul (9:13-16)

Ananias is quite hesitant about going to meet Paul. He has heard reports about him and knows that he came to Damascus with authority from the chief priests to arrest Christians. Ananias refers to the Christians as “saints” (hagioi). This is the first time Luke uses the term in describing the church community (also in 9:41 and 26:10). The saints or holy ones are those whom God sets apart for his service. All Christians are saints. They are not “saints” because of their own goodness but because of what God does to them, making them his own. Christians are commonly called saints in the New Testament, especially in Paul’s letters. [See, for example, Romans 1:71 Corinthians 6:12 Corinthians 1:18:4; and Ephesians 1:1.] Even though Paul has persecuted the saints, the Lord insists that Ananias visit Paul. Ananias is told: “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel” (9:15).

Once Paul receives his commission, he continues to regard himself as someone who has been “set apart for the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1). [See also Galatians 1:15-16 and Ephesians 3:7-9 for Paul’s understanding of his distinctive election to special service.] Paul’s threefold witness before Gentiles, kings and the people of Israel amounts to a programmatic prophecy for his life’s mission. Luke describes Paul’s work in Acts in terms of this commission. Paul will take the gospel to the Gentiles (13:46-47) and defend himself before kings such as Agrippa, and even Caesar (26:2-23; 25:12). Paul will also preach to the “people of Israel” (9:15). At almost every turn Paul begins his preaching in the Jewish synagogue (14:1; 17:2; 18:19). However, while Paul is the apostle to the Gentiles and Peter to the Jews (“the circumcision”), we must not draw too hard a line on this division of labor. After all, Peter opens the way to the Gentile world by preaching the gospel to the Gentile Cornelius. And Paul regularly preaches to Jews.

Paul’s calling will not be filled with personal glory, however. He is forewarned that he will have a life of pain and distress. In the words of Jesus, delivered to Paul through Ananias: “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (9:16).

Ananias visits Paul

With this understanding about Paul’s future role, Ananias goes to the house of Judas, meets Paul, and places his hands on him. He says: “Brother Saul, the Lord — Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here — has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit” (9:17). By laying his hands on Paul and calling him brother, Ananias is welcoming him into the community of believers. Immediately, something falls from Paul’s eyes, and he can see again. Ananias now leaves the story as mysteriously as he enters it.

In Acts 22, Luke gives a fuller account of Ananias’ part in the conversion. There, he describes Paul’s commission in these words: “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth” (22:14). The title “the Righteous One” refers to the Messiah. This is the title Stephen uses in his Sanhedrin speech when he accuses the council of rejecting their Messiah (7:52). Paul, who may have heard the speech, is now faced with accepting the One he rejected, and whose messenger he approved of killing.

Ananias also tells Paul that he will be a witness to all people of what he has seen and heard. Finally, Ananias tells Paul: “Now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name” (22:16). Paul responds immediately. He is “baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength” (9:18-19). Though Luke doesn’t directly say so, Paul receives the Holy Spirit. That, after all, is a major reason why Ananias is sent to Paul — to lay his hands on him so he might receive the Spirit (9:17). “That Saul should have received the filling of the Spirit through the imposition of the hands of such an obscure disciple as Ananias shows clearly that Luke did not reckon the imposition of apostolic hands to be necessary for this.” [Bruce, 188.]

Paul’s early preaching

After spending a few days with the disciples in Damascus, Paul begins “to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God” (9:20). The fact that Paul wastes no time in beginning his witness demonstrates that he is to perform a vital mission. But we should note that he preaches to Jews, not Gentiles. Paul almost always begins his preaching in a synagogue. He goes to a synagogue first, and then moves to other places only after he is rejected and expelled. [Acts 13:513-1614:116:131617:118:41919:828:17.]

The substance of Paul’s initial preaching is a basic and simple gospel of Jesus’ Messiahship, as understood by the church. Jesus died and was resurrected. He fulfilled the role of the hoped-for Messiah, and Jews should put their faith in him because he represents salvation for his hearers. Luke says that Paul preaches that “Jesus is the Son of God” (9:20), without explaining how this term is understood; this is the only time in Acts that this title appears. In his own writings, Paul uses the title “Son of God” and “Son” 15 times. These are scattered throughout several of his epistles. [Some examples are Romans 1:3-41 Corinthians 1:92 Corinthians 1:19Galatians 2:20.]


Acts 9:21-35

Paul is now preaching the very things about Jesus that he persecuted others for saying. Naturally, the unconverted Jews are astonished at the almost unbelievable turnaround in Paul’s attitude toward Jesus and the church. The man who was the sworn enemy of the Christians is now preaching Jesus. Luke records the bewilderment of those who hear him: “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” (9:21).

But Paul grows more powerful in his preaching and baffles “the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah” (9:22). The verb “proving” used here literally means “placing together,” “bringing together,” or “comparing.” That is, Paul is placing Old Testament references to the Messiah with each other — and alongside their fulfillment in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. This placing together is meant to lead Jews to see Jesus as the one who fulfilled what the Scriptures say about their hoped-for Messiah.

Paul escapes (9:23-25)

It is only a matter of time before Paul becomes the target of persecution. Luke tells us that after Paul preaches for “many days” in Damascus, the Jews conspire to kill him (9:23). Paul somehow learns of the plot, but getting out of the city will be difficult. Jewish spies are watching the city gates night and day in hopes of spotting Paul and killing him. But the disciples devise a plan of escape. “His followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall” (9:25; see also 2 Corinthians 11:33). Houses were often part of the city wall, and their upper-floor windows opened to the outside of the city. This is apparently what Luke means by “an opening in the wall” (9:25). Note that Paul now has “followers” — he had become a leader in the Damascene Christian community and probably led a number of people to faith in Jesus.

Paul’s preaching in Damascus and his escape take place “after many days had gone by” (9:23). In Galatians, Paul gives a more exact time, saying the escape and his first trip to Jerusalem occur three years after his conversion (1:18). Paul also adds something to Luke’s story of his escape in another letter. The extra details show the extent of the conspiracy against him. He said that “the governor under King Aretas” had Damascus guarded (2 Corinthians 11:32-33). This means that the Jews of Damascus are in league with a pagan political ruler in trying to track down Paul, just as the Jewish leaders of Jerusalem allied with pagan rulers in the crucifixion of Jesus. After his escape, Paul returns to Jerusalem.

Preaching in Arabia?

The king Paul mentions is Aretas IV (9 B.C.-A.D. 40), the ruler of the Nabatean kingdom, or “Arabia.” Paul’s mention of King Aretas is important because of what it tells us about his movements during the three years between his conversion and first trip to Jerusalem. From Luke’s account in Acts 9 it appears that Paul stays the entire three years in Damascus, preaching in the synagogues, before his escape to Jerusalem. But according to Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he goes “into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus” (1:17). Since Aretas was king of “Arabia,” we may have a reason why the king’s representative in Damascus is involved in the plot to arrest and execute Paul. Why would a Nabatean king and his agent be involved in a plot against Paul? That is to say, why would an Arab ally himself with Jews over matters of interest only to Judaism?

Before we answer that question, we should acknowledge that it’s not clear what a representative of Aretas is doing in Damascus. Is he resident in Damascus to look after the interests of Arabs living there under Roman rule? Or is Damascus at this time under the control of Nabatea? Whatever the situation, the Nabatean official has some kind of jurisdiction and political power in Damascus. Commentators speculate that the reason he goes after Paul is tied to the reason Paul goes to Arabia. They surmise that Paul does not go to Arabia with the purpose of being in a solitary desert place so he can reflect on the meaning of his new life. Rather, Paul goes to Arabia to preach the gospel in its cities and town. Thus, he is fulfilling his commission to preach to the Gentiles.

Paul’s preaching would cause him to run afoul of the authorities and King Aretas. Thus, the king might instruct his agent in Damascus to enter an alliance with the Jews, since both of them want Paul out of the way. Aretas would cause his police and military to cooperate with the Jews, and together they would patrol the gates and city in hopes of capturing Paul.

It is commonly supposed that Paul’s sojourn in Arabia had the nature of a religious retreat: that he sought the solitude of the desert — perhaps even going to Mount Horeb as Moses and Elijah had done — in order to commune with God and think out all the implications of his new life, without disturbance. But the context in which he tells of his going to Arabia, immediately after receiving his commission to proclaim Christ among the Gentiles, suggests that he went there to preach the gospel. The hostile interest which the Nabataean authorities took in him implies that he had done something to annoy them — something more than withdrawal to the desert for solitary contemplation. [Bruce, 192.]

Of course, this scenario is only a possible reconstruction of the situation. Luke doesn’t give us enough details (and neither does Paul) to reach a definite conclusion. Luke is more interested in showing the genuineness of Paul’s conversion and how God leads him to fulfill his commission to preach the gospel. To summarize, we can reconstruct the three years of Paul’s life between his conversion and first visit to Jerusalem in the following way:

  • Paul is converted in Damascus (9:1-19);
  • he preaches in the synagogues of Damascus for a short time immediately following his conversion (9:19-22);
  • he then goes on a prolonged trip into Arabia with the purpose of preaching to Gentiles (Galatians 1:17);
  • he returns to Damascus and for the rest of the three-year period, and again preaches in the synagogues there (9:23-25);
  • Jews and agents of the Nabatean king try to find and arrest Paul;
  • Paul escapes from Damascus and travels to Jerusalem.

The accounts of this period of Paul’s life in Acts, 2 Corinthians and Galatians agree in important essentials. The accounts in the epistles add some details to Acts and omit others. The accounts are complementary and not contradictory. Luke’s work is historically accurate — an independent account, not simply copied from Galatians or 2 Corinthians. The different purposes of Luke and Paul affect the selection and shaping of the facts of the Damascus-Arabia episode. In Galatians, Paul’s primary concern is to establish the fact of his apostolic authority as coming directly from Christ (Galatians 1:11-12). The details of his Damascus and Arabian missionary activities are irrelevant, though he mentions them in passing.

Luke is also interested in the nature of Paul’s conversion and commission. However, his concern centers more on how the gospel message spreads from Jerusalem, around the eastern end of the Empire, and then to Rome. He doesn’t mention Paul’s excursion into Arabia because it veers off the main geographical movement of the gospel that Luke wants to highlight. (For the same reason, Luke says nothing of the church’s mission to Galilee.)

Church suspicious (9:26)

When Paul arrives in Jerusalem, he finds that the church members are gravely suspicious of him. How can it be otherwise? The church still remembers, even after three years, how Paul dragged its members off to prison and had them flogged and beaten. Paul puts the feelings of the church regarding his turnaround in these words: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy” (Galatians 1:23). The church cannot deny Paul is preaching Christ, but perhaps they are not quite sure of his motives.

Still, some commentators are puzzled as to why the rank and file of the church should still be so distrustful of Paul. Surely, they heard of his dramatic conversion, his preaching activity and the persecution he suffered. Perhaps the church thinks that Paul’s “conversion” is only part of an elaborate plot, a scheme to penetrate its ranks to ferret out believers for punishment. Whatever the case, Luke tells us the disciples don’t believe he has really converted (9:26).

There’s an indication that even the apostles are somewhat apprehensive. That may seem surprising, but none of them know Paul personally, except as a fanatic enemy (Galatians 1:17). The apostles may wonder why Paul, if he is really converted, did not contact them or the Jerusalem church for three years.

Paul in Jerusalem (9:27)

Barnabas, whom Luke introduced earlier (4:36-37), now comes on the scene and saves the day for Paul. He brings Paul to the apostles and recounts to them his conversion and preaching in Damascus (9:27). One might wonder why Barnabas is the only person willing to vouch for Paul and take a chance in accepting him as a true believer. Whatever the reasons, Barnabas’ action is certainly in keeping with his character. [Acts 4:36-3711:22-3013:1-14:2815:2-41222.] He seems to be a good judge of a person’s true self. Ironically, Barnabas will later show the same kind of take-a-chance generosity to Mark (15:37-40), whom Paul will reject as an unworthy ministerial aide. In the end, Paul will see that Barnabas was right in giving Mark another opportunity to minister (2 Timothy 4:11).

Barnabas brought Paul “to the apostles,” a phrase that at first look seems to refer to all of them (9:27). However, Paul says that on this occasion he stays with Peter for 15 days and “saw none of the other apostles — only James, the Lord’s brother” (Gal 1:19). Luke is apparently using a generalizing term. If someone sees Peter and James, the leading apostles, it is as though the person sees them all. If those two accept you, then the others will as well.

Luke says that during this visit to Jerusalem Paul “stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem” (9:27). Paul says in Galatians that he stayed with Peter, and saw James. Perhaps he also stayed with James for a time. This might account for Luke’s assertion that “Saul stayed with them.” We can take this as Luke’s use of another generalizing plural. We don’t know how long Paul stays in Jerusalem, but his visit probably amounts to weeks, not months. During part of his visit, Paul might also stay at his sister’s house in the city (23:16). That he sees none of the other apostles need not seem strange. They may be doing evangelistic work elsewhere.

In Galatians Paul makes another statement about his visit that seems to contradict what Luke writes. In his epistle, Paul writes that he is “personally unknown to the churches of Judea” (Galatians 1:22). Yet, Luke says Paul preached in public, moved about freely, and had meetings with Peter and James — even staying with Peter. The answer may be that Paul confines his public appearances to debates with the Jewish Hellenists in Jerusalem. Although Galatians says Paul does not meet with the disciples in the churches around Judea, it does not say he doesn’t meet any of the Jerusalem believers. The answer may be that Paul’s stay is confined to Jerusalem; he is therefore not known to Christian communities scattered about Judea. Because of the disciples’ suspicion and fear of Paul, they probably would not make any effort to see him anyway.

Speaks boldly (9:28-29)

During his stay in Jerusalem Paul speaks “boldly in the name of the Lord” (9:28). He debates with the Grecian or Hellenistic Jews. This is the same group to whom Stephen preached, and which ultimately led to Stephen’s arrest, trial and death. In a sense, Paul is taking up the work Stephen began. In a bit of irony, Paul ends up at odds with the same group he represented, or even led, in its conflict with Stephen. Paul’s appearance before the Hellenists is actually a witness against them. One of their own — the most zealous one — had made a total about-face regarding Jesus. This dramatic change in Paul should alert the Hellenists to take another look at the facts about Jesus. But their minds are closed. Paul soon finds himself in the same difficulty as Stephen was in. Luke says tersely that the Hellenistic Jews “tried to kill him” (9:29).

Paul goes to Tarsus (9:30)

The Jerusalem church apparently does not want another round of persecution, such as what followed Stephen’s battle with the Grecian Jews. (We see from Acts 9:26 that the church, probably composed of Hebraic Jews, is still operating in Jerusalem.) When the disciples learn of the plot against Paul, they quickly escort him to Caesarea. He is put on a ship and sent home to Tarsus (9:30). On the surface, this would seem to be a rebuff to Paul. Granted, the church is concerned for his safety, as well as their own. Paul is someone who always takes advantage of a preaching opportunity regardless of any death threats. On the surface, it seems as though the church is telling Paul to “get out of town before sunset.”

We will learn later that Paul may be a “problem” to the Jerusalem church. The reason is because it wants to maintain good relations with the orthodox Jewish population in the city. But Paul is so hated by the Jews that his mere appearance in Jerusalem stirs up strife, for himself and potentially for the church. That is not to say the church would railroad Paul out of the city against his wishes. There is a more compelling reason for Paul’s departure, one Luke doesn’t mention in Acts 9. However, he does mention it in Paul’s speech before a crowd of Jerusalem Jews. In his defense at the time, Paul speaks of an occasion when he was in the temple praying, and he has a vision. Paul sees the Lord saying to him, “Quick!…Leave Jerusalem immediately, because the people here will not accept your testimony about me” (22:18).

Paul tries to argue, saying that his turn-around conversion is so dramatic that it will cause the Jews to listen. But the Lord tells him again to leave Jerusalem: “Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (22:21). It can be inferred that the time of this vision is just before his hasty departure from Jerusalem (22:17). Paul’s quick exodus to Tarsus is based on a heavenly mandate, to which he is obedient.

Luke does not say anything about Paul’s long stay in Tarsus. He draws a curtain over Paul’s life for what may be as long as ten years. Paul refers to this interval only in passing. He says that after leaving Jerusalem he goes to Syria and Cilicia (Galatians 1:2123). More specifically, he is referring to Antioch in Syria and Tarsus in Cilicia. Tarsus is the leading city of Cilicia, and Paul’s hometown. It came under Roman control in 64 B.C., but is still a free city. Some estimate the population of the city in Roman times to be close to half a million. The historian-geographer Strabo says Tarsus is a leading center of philosophy, rhetoric and law. [Geography14.5.13.] Tarsus is also an important center of Stoic philosophy, so Paul would be familiar with the leading Stoics and their beliefs. We will see later that he can quote from Stoic poets.

Later, when Barnabas needs assistance in building the church in the Antioch area, he goes to Tarsus to find Paul, and brings him to Antioch (11:25-26). From then on, Paul becomes the central focus of Acts.

Church grows (9:31)

Luke’s first panel of material ended with a summary statement about the church and the progress of the gospel in Jerusalem (6:7). The second panel, in keeping with the programmatic prophecy given by Jesus (1:8), describes missionary work in Samaria, as well as parts of Judea. Luke ends the second panel with the following summary statement: “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, and it increased in numbers” (9:31).

Luke here gives the first and only indication that the church has spread to Galilee. But he gives no details about the Christian mission there, and writes little about the work in greater Judea. Yet, Luke’s brief summary statement tells us that the gospel is spreading and the church is thriving.

Peter preaches in Judea (Acts 9:32-43)

Peter heals Aeneas in Lydda (9:32-35)

Luke again takes up the story of Peter’s evangelistic work. He had left him in Jerusalem, after his tour with John through the Samaritan villages (8:25). We now find Peter on an evangelistic campaign in Judea (9:32). Philip has passed throughout the area of coastal Judea preaching the gospel on his way from Azotus to Caesarea (8:40). Peter may be following up Philip’s Judean missionary trip, even as he did for Philip’s work in Samaria.

Luke begins the account of Peter’s circuit around Judea with his trip to Lydda to “visit the saints,” that is, the believers (9:32). This is the Old Testament Lod. [1 Chronicles 8:12Ezra 2:33Nehemiah 11:35.] Lydda is about 25 miles (40 kilometers) northwest of Jerusalem, at the edge of the central highlands. It sits astride two important highways. One runs from Egypt to Syria and the other from Joppa (on the coast) to Jerusalem.

In Lydda, Peter encounters a man named Aeneas who has been paralyzed and bedridden for eight years. Upon meeting him, Peter says, “Jesus Christ heals you,” and Aeneas immediately gets up and walks (9:34). Word quickly spreads of Aeneas’ healing, and it has a powerful influence on the community. With some exaggeration, Luke writes: “All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord” (9:35).


Acts 9:36-43

Raised from the dead (9:36)

Peter next goes to Joppa (modern Jaffa, or Yafo). It is 35 miles (56 kilometers) northwest of Jerusalem, 10-12 miles northwest of Lydda. Today, Jaffa is part of greater Tel-Aviv. Joppa is the only natural harbor on the Mediterranean between Egypt and Ptolemais (Acco), to the north. Thus, it serves as a seaport for Jerusalem. Herod the Great built the artificial harbor of Caesarea Maritima, 30 miles north of Joppa, which is an important seaport in the first century, too.

Luke takes up the story of a much-loved disciple who lives in Joppa. In Aramaic her name is Tabitha, and in Greek, Dorcas (both names mean “gazelle”). Luke says she is a person “who was always doing good and helping the poor” (9:36). But suddenly Tabitha dies, and the church in Joppa is mourning its loss of a much-appreciated and needed servant.

When the church hears that Peter is nearby in Lydda, they send two men to urge him to come to see what he can do. When Peter arrives at Joppa, he is taken to the house where Tabitha is lying in preparation for her burial. Here all the widows are gathered. They are crying and showing Peter the clothing that Tabitha made for the poor. Peter goes upstairs where her body lays. He sends everyone out of the room, and kneels and prays. Finally, turning to the dead woman, he says, “Tabitha, get up” (9:40). He takes Tabitha’s hand, helps her to her feet and presents her to the others.

There are similarities between this account and the raising of Jairus’ daughter by Jesus (Mark 5:21-24Luke 8:49-56). Some of the similarities include:

  • the use of messengers to call the person who will raise the dead,
  • the milling about of crying bystanders,
  • the excluding of outsiders from the room,
  • the call to the dead person to rise,
  • the taking of the revived individual by the hand.

The most striking similarity is that both Jesus and Peter issued a command for the dead person to rise, a short sentence in each case. Jesus had said, “Talitha…get up!” (Mark 5:41), whereas Peter cried: “Tabitha, get up” (9:40).

As he had seen Jesus do in the case of Jairus’s daughter, he ordered the mourners out of the room and prayed. Then he spoke these words: “Tabitha, get up” (which in its Aramaic form Tabitha kumi would have differed in only one letter from Jesus’ command Talitha kumi [“Little girl, get up”]). [Longenecker, 382.]

The parallel between Mark’s account of the raising of Jairus’ daughter and Peter’s raising of Tabitha is striking. Interestingly, Luke uses a different construction for Christ’s command (Luke 8:54), one that does not parallel his phrasing of Peter’s command to Tabitha. This suggests that Luke is not aware of the similarity. Yet, it is there nonetheless.

Both the raising of Tabitha and the healing of Aeneas mirror similar miraculous works performed by Jesus (Luke 5:17-267:11-16). The accounts in Acts 9 also remind us of the power to heal and to raise the dead exhibited by Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17:17-242 Kings 4:32:37). Taken together, these biblical accounts show God as one who continues to work through his servants — be they prophets or apostles or his own Son — to show his saving power. God brings his power to bear on behalf of the less-advantaged people of the world. Among those whom he liberates from death and sickness are widows like Dorcas and the poor and disenfranchised who have no one on whom they can rely.

Commentaries on Acts of the Apostles

Simon the tanner (9:43)

Almost as a footnote, Luke mentions that Peter stays in Joppa “for some time with a tanner named Simon” (9:43). The rabbis considered tanning an unclean trade [Mishnah, Ketubot7.10.] because a tanner’s work often required contact with unclean animals. [The skins of clean animals were apparently not unclean. Scribes often wrote the Scriptures on parchment, which is the stretched-thin skin of a dead animal.] This suggests that Peter is not overly scrupulous in observing some of the Jewish ceremonial traditions. Yet, he professes to be careful not to eat meats considered ceremonially unclean (10:4).

Peter seems to have an open mind regarding Jewish beliefs and practices; this prepares us for what will come shortly. He will be tested in the next chapter on matters “clean and unclean,” but from a much broader perspective.

As an aside, we should note Luke’s tendency to provide details that do not add anything pertinent to the account. But such details do underscore the historical accuracy of Luke’s writing. Specifically, Johannes Munck observes that “it is characteristic of Luke in Acts that he gives an accurate address” for a number of places in which Paul lives or works during his life. [Johannes Munck, The Acts of the Apostles, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1967; now published by Yale University Press), 88.]

Luke thus shows his attention to detail and to giving accurate information even on what might seem to be unimportant matters. In this case, we are told that the Simon with whom Paul stayed was a tanner, and he had a house by the sea. Luke also notes that Paul stays in Judas’ house in the street called Straight in Damascus (9:11). In Corinth Paul preaches in the house of Justus who lives next to the synagogue (18:17). At Ephesus, Paul teaches in the School of Tyrannus (19:9). [See also 16:14; 17:5-7; 18:2-3; 21:8, 16; 28:7.]

With this short section, Luke informs his readers that the gospel has been preached in the province of Judea by the apostles, at least by Peter (after Philip did so). Now, the story of the gospel in Judea has been told. Peter, the servant of God, has entered the cities of the Plain of Sharon, and has done wonders in the name of Jesus Christ. Many see his work, give God thanks and are converted.

The Christian mission within the Jewish nation has widened from southern Judea to northern Judea. The reader is now prepared for the next leap of the gospel message that must be taken. The good news must be preached to Gentiles, and in areas beyond Judea.

Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012


Acts 10:1-33

The Gospel Goes to Cornelius, a Gentile (Acts 10:1-11:18)
Part 1: Chapter 10

The Gentile challenge

Luke now begins to tell the story of a fundamental turning point in the history of the early church. For the first time Gentiles will be directly evangelized and admitted into fellowship with Jewish Christians. As a result, the church will not remain just an offshoot of an ethnic religion (Judaism). It will become a universal body embracing people from every nation and race.

Luke takes great pains to show that this change in the church is the result of God’s will and guidance. It does not come about through some human-devised program. This section shows that God, through the Holy Spirit, is bringing the Gentiles into his spiritual body, the church. We will see this in verse after verse describing the account of Cornelius’ conversion as a supernatural operation of God. [Acts 10:311-1619-2022b30-3344-4611:5-1012-1315-17.]

At the beginning of his two-part work, Luke alerts his readers to the promise that Jesus would be a “light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32). Quoting from Isaiah the prophet, Luke repeats the promise that through Jesus “all people will see God’s salvation” (Luke 3:6). Luke also tells us that Paul will carry Christ’s name to the Gentiles (9:15). (Ironically, God will open the church’s door to the Gentiles through Peter, not Paul.)

But up to this time, the barrier between Jew and Gentile has not been breached, though on several occasions it has been nudged. When the Samaritans and the Ethiopian eunuch (probably already a proselyte or God-fearer) are converted, for example, almost certainly the issue of the church’s attitude to non-Jews comes up. The controversy over the Gentiles is probably avoided only because the Ethiopian lives far away and the Samaritans probably fellowship among themselves in their own congregations. And they are considered “half-Jews” anyway. Thus, the issue of Gentiles directly mingling with Jews can be sidestepped until chapter 10.

But to have Gentiles evangelized directly and en masse, and then to have them fellowship with Jews, is another matter. Jews will be coming into contact with people who are considered impure, and whose food is regarded as unclean. Gentiles will not be living in conformity with Mosaic law. For example, they don’t circumcise their children.

Of even greater concern is that Gentiles are idolaters, worshipping many false gods. Granted, they might become converted. But what will be the shape of their day-to-day religious practices? Will they corrupt and contaminate the practices Jews hold sacred? Such issues will soon become major concerns, dividing the church for decades to come.

Meanwhile, the range of the Christian evangelistic program has been steadily broadening — pushing out from Jews in Jerusalem, to Jews throughout Judea, to the Samaritans, to African proselytes. Now the time has come to crash through the “wall of partition.” The gospel is taken directly to Gentiles, and questions about their eligibility to be among the people of God have to be dealt with head on.

A test case

A test case is needed to show God’s will in this matter: Can Gentiles become Christians, and what is the path toward their becoming disciples? As it turns out, God uses the Roman centurion Cornelius, his family and friends to break down the barrier to the Gentile world. The space Luke devotes to the conversion of Cornelius reveals how controversial it is in the church, and how important it is to the story of the spread of the gospel. Entire sections in chapters 10, 11 and 15 deal with the crisis precipitated by Cornelius’ conversion. Three times in these chapters Luke discusses the conversion of Cornelius and its implication for the church. Luke narrates the original story of the event in 10:1-48. He discusses it again, along with the controversy it engenders, in 11:1-18. Then, for a third time, he summarizes the story of Cornelius’ conversion in 15:6-11.

The story of Cornelius, which ends with Peter’s speech to the assembly at Jerusalem, is the longest narrative in Acts… Judged solely on the basis of the amount of space Luke gives to the story, we know that we are dealing with a crucial concern of Acts, a pivot for the entire book, a turning point in the long drama of redemption. [Willimon, 95.]

Breakthrough at Caesarea (10:1)

Caesarea is the setting for the conversion of Cornelius. It is an apt place for the calling of the first Gentiles to fellowship with Jewish Christians. The city is in the center of the coastal Plain of Sharon, about 65 miles (105 kilometers) northwest of Jerusalem. Herod the Great built some magnificent projects here, including an amphitheater, an aqueduct and a superb port. A garrison of soldiers protects the city, harbor and water facilities. The military guard includes the Italian Regiment, of which Cornelius is a centurion.

In this period, Caesarea serves as the capital of the Roman province of Judea. It is the residence of the Roman procurator (23:23-24). Josephus says that the population is primarily Gentile. [Wars 3:409.] However, Caesarea also has a large minority of Jews. The two groups brawled on a regular basis. [Antiquities 20:173-178.]

Philip probably preached to the Jews of Caesarea (8:40). Paul stopped there on his way to Tarsus (9:30), but there’s no indication that he preached in the area. Now, Peter on his own missionary journey has gone as far as Joppa, 30 miles south of Caesarea.

Centurion Cornelius (10:1-2)

Cornelius, the hero of the story, is identified as an army man, a centurion in the Italian Regiment or “cohort.” A centurion is a noncommissioned officer who worked his way up through the ranks to take command of a group of soldiers within a Roman legion. (A comparable rank in the American military would be captain, and in the British army, a company sergeant-major.) When a cohort is at full strength, a centurion is in command of 100 men. William Barclay gives the following description of Rome’s military units:

In the Roman military set-up there was first of all the legion. It was a force of six thousand men and therefore was roughly equal to a division. In every legion there were ten cohorts. A cohort therefore had six hundred men and comes near to being the equivalent of a battalion. The cohort was divided into centuries and over each century there was a centurion. The century is therefore roughly the equivalent of a company. [William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, revised edition, The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), page 79.]

The above applies to regular legions of the Roman army. However, it is likely that there are no such legions in Judea between A.D. 6 and 66. Roman governors in Judea have auxiliaryforces, and the cohorts have smaller numbers. The Italian Cohort (Regiment) to which Cornelius belongs would be an auxiliary unit. The historian Polybius describes the qualifications of a centurion: “Centurions are required not to be bold and adventurous so much as good leaders, of stead and prudent mind, not prone to take the offensive or start fighting wantonly, but able when overwhelmed and hard-pressed to stand fast and die at their post.” [History 6.24.]

Cornelius may be a descendant of one of the freedman of a man named Cornelius Sulla, who liberated 10,000 slaves in 82 B.C. According to common practice, the freed slaves took their patron’s name. Centurions are generally pictured in a favorable light by Luke. The first Gentile with whom Jesus came into contact, so far as we know, is a centurion stationed in Capernaum. He is pictured as exhibiting extraordinary faith in Jesus (Luke 7:1-10). The centurion at Jesus’ crucifixion also recognizes something special in him (Luke 23:47). Later, another centurion, Julius, shows kindness to Paul and spares his life (27:1, 3, 43).

Devout and God-fearing (10:2)

Luke describes Cornelius and his family as “devout and God-fearing” (10:2). The description of Cornelius as “a righteous and God-fearing man” best sums up his spiritual qualities (10:22). We might call him a “deeply religious man.” He worships the God of Israel, attends the synagogue, and lives according to many of the standards of the Torah. He is a Gentile (10:28) but is “respected by all the Jewish people” (10:22). He prays at the designated hours of Jewish prayer (10:30), gives “gifts to the poor” (10:4) and is devout (10:2). But he is not a proselyte — he isn’t circumcised (11:3).

Luke describes the piety of Cornelius in traditional Jewish terms as one who engages in prayer and almsgiving (Tobit 12:8-10). Specifically, he gives alms “to the people.” Luke uses the term “the people” to indicate the nation of Israel, or the Jews. This suggests that Cornelius helps Jews, as does the centurion of Luke 7:5. “In sum, Cornelius was a noble and spiritually sensitive Roman army officer,” says Richard N. Longenecker. [385.] And we may say of him with F. F. Bruce, “He had every qualification, short of circumcision, which could satisfy Jewish requirements.” [203.]

While it’s not clear that the Jews have a technical designation such as “God-fearers” for people like Cornelius, it’s clear that there are many such Gentiles scattered throughout the Roman Empire. They along with full proselytes are found worshipping in synagogues in which Paul preaches. They ultimately constitute an important part of the church (13:14, 26, 48).

We notice too that his family, and even his military aide (10:8) are also said to be devout people. In that society, the entire household, including servants, usually adopt the patriarch’s religion. Cornelius would influence them by his example. This fact, along with his reputation for good works (10:22), indicates that Cornelius is an older man who has been in Caesarea for some years. He may even be a semi-retired army officer.

Cornelius has a vision (10:3-8)

The fateful time of Cornelius’ calling is at hand. It begins on a certain day about three o’clock in the afternoon, one of the statutory Jewish hours of prayer (3:1). Cornelius is praying at this time (10:30). He has a vision in which a messenger from God, an angel, said: “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God” (10:4).

The angel speaks in the language of sacrifice used in Jewish circles. The “memorial offering” mentioned here alludes to the Old Testament flour offerings made from grain that were to be burned “as a memorial portion” (Leviticus 2:2). [The Greek word for “memorial” in Acts 10:4was the same one the Greek Septuagint used in Leviticus 2:2.] This offering was burned on the altar and “an aroma pleasing to the Lord” went up to God (Leviticus 2:2).

Like the aroma of the sacrifice, the scent of Cornelius’ prayers and gifts is going “up” to God. God is signaling his pleasure with Cornelius, and he is ready to reveal his salvation to him. In preparation for this, the angel tells Cornelius to send men to Joppa to ask Peter to come to his home. Cornelius calls two servants and a military aide, a devout man, and dispatches them to Joppa (11:7-8).

Peter's vision, by Ken TunellPeter’s vision (10:9-16)

The scene in Luke’s drama switches to Peter, who is praying on the roof of Simon the Tanner’s house. The roof is a convenient place to get away from activity in the house. The time is around noon, the sixth hour, by the ancient method of reckoning. Noon is also one of the three appointed times for Jewish public prayer (Daniel 6:10Psalm 55:17).

During the time of prayer, Peter becomes hungry and asks someone in the house for something to eat. While the meal is being prepared, he falls into a trance (10:11-12). Peter sees a large sheet held up by its four corners being let down to the ground. Inside the sheet he sees various four-footed animals, reptiles and birds. The three categories of living things Peter sees correspond roughly with the three divisions given in Genesis 6:20: animals, creatures that move along the ground and birds.

A voice tells Peter to get up and eat. But Peter replies, “Surely not, Lord!…I have never eaten anything impure or unclean” (10:14). Peter’s strong negative — “Surely not, Lord!” recalls the prophet Ezekiel’s horror when he is told by the Lord to use human excrement as fuel for baking bread. He said: “Not so, Sovereign Lord!…. No impure meat has ever entered my mouth” (Ezekiel 4:14).

We saw earlier that Peter is not overly scrupulous in observing certain Jewish regulations. He stays at the house of a leather worker, who would come in contact with dead animals. Perhaps he even works with unclean animals (9:43). But Peter does apparently follow the Jewish dietary laws based on the Torah. He knows from Leviticus 11:47 that a Jew needs to “distinguish between the unclean and the clean, between living creatures that may be eaten and those that may not be eaten.”

However, the sheet contains “all kinds” of living things. Luke’s account implies it includes animals traditionally acceptable to eat as well as those forbidden by old covenant law. Perhaps Peter sees the living things he recognized as unclean touching the edible ones, thus tainting them. “While clean animals were represented in the sheet, Peter was scandalized by the unholy mixture of clean and unclean and by the fact that no distinctions were made in the command to ‘kill and eat’.” [Longenecker, 387.]

The Jews’ adherence to the dietary laws profoundly affect their relations with Gentiles. Food laws have the effect of keeping the people separated from each other. A Jew visiting a Gentile can’t be sure he will be served “clean” food, or that the food is prepared according to the requirements of the law, or whether it has been tainted by an idol. To eat with Gentiles is to risk defilement, and this is a strong inducement for Jews not to fellowship with them. Since food is at the center of social life, it is the thing that perhaps more than anything else creates a barrier between Jews and Gentiles. And as an ideal, Jews have no dealings with Gentiles. Food regulations are a point of heated debate in the church. [Romans 14:1-817; Corinthians 8:1-13; Galatians 2:11-14.]

It’s not surprising, then, that Peter is confused by the next statement of the voice in his vision. When he refuses to eat, a voice says: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (11:15). This happens three times, perhaps with the sheet being lowered each time, accompanied by a command to eat and not to call anything unclean that God had cleansed.

Pondering the vision (10:17-23)

Peter is puzzled about the meaning of the vision, with its strange mixture of living things, and the odd commands (10:17). While Peter is mulling over what he has seen, the emissaries from Cornelius arrive at Simon’s home. They stop at the gate, shouting to the occupants, asking whether Peter is staying there (9:17). This little scene with Gentiles calling out from beyond the gate reflects exactly the situation the vision is meant to correct.

Devout non-Jews such as those who came from Cornelius probably understand that Jews do not want any close association with Gentiles. Thus, it would be rude for them to come to the door of a Jew’s home, with the desire of being allowed inside. But at the same time as the exchange at the gate, the Holy Spirit says to Peter: “Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them” (10:20). The fact of the Spirit having to encourage Peter not to be hesitant reveals his reluctance to associate with Gentiles.

By now, however, Peter begins to suspect that God is making some purpose known to him, so he invites the men into the house as his guests (10:23). (No doubt, this occurs with the tanner’s permission, since Peter himself is a guest.) The men explain they are here at the request of Cornelius, emphasizing that he is “a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people” (10:22). More than this, they say that Cornelius has not decided on his own to contact Peter, but an angel from God told him to do so.

Contingent goes to Caesarea (10:23)

Peter must now be doubly impressed that something of importance — something inspired by the Holy Spirit — is happening with the Gentile Cornelius. He wholeheartedly agrees to go with the men. The next day Peter starts out for Caesarea, 30 miles away. He takes some of the disciples living in Joppa with him. We learn later that the contingent consists of six people (11:12). They are identified as “circumcised believers,” which is to say they are Jewish Christians who follow the traditions of the Torah (10:45). In retrospect, this proves a wise move, as Peter will later be severely criticized by the Jerusalem church for meeting with Cornelius (11:3). The six will be important witnesses to the operation of the Holy Spirit in this momentous event.

Peter meets Cornelius (10:24-26)

Meanwhile, Cornelius has called together his relatives and close friends (10:24). Earlier, Luke described his household as “devout and God-fearing” (10:2). Later, all of Cornelius’ family will share in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and be baptized (10:44, 48).

Peter arrives at the residence of Cornelius, and goes in (10:25). A momentous milestone lies hidden here. Peter, in contradiction to all that Judaism stands for, enters the house of a Gentile. The church will never be the same again. Cornelius meets Peter and falls at his feet in reverence (10:25). It’s understandable why he reacts this way. Having an angel specifically tell him to send for Peter could make him think there is something holy or supernatural about the apostle.

Also, perhaps something of Cornelius’ former superstitious background is manifesting itself, in which humans are sometimes thought to be gods. Paul and Barnabas are similarly thought of and worshipped by the pagan Gentiles of Lystra (14:15). Peter, of course, will have none of this, and makes Cornelius stand up. Then he sets the record straight about who he is. Luke’s simple phrase from Peter’s words says it all: “I am only a man myself” (10:26).

Call no one impure (10:27-33)

Peter goes inside the house and begins to explain to the group why he, a Jew, is here in the home of a Gentile. He admits that it is against Jewish law for Jews to associate with or even visit Gentiles (10:28). (The “no contact rule” was probably the hoped-for Jewish position. There are provisions in Jewish law that allow business partnerships with Gentiles. But any such contacts, of either a business or social nature, make a Jew ceremonially unclean.)

Various Jewish religious groups debate the degree of separation a Jew needs to maintain vis á vis Gentiles in order to remain loyal to the regulations of the Torah. Some groups, such as the Essenes, seem to maintain an almost complete separation. The Pharisees are more moderate in such matters, and the common folk the least observant. Peter is probably on the more liberal end of the spectrum regarding the wall of separation. (Fishermen are used to handling dead animals and unclean animals.) Yet, he is having great difficulty understanding the new direction the church is to be taking (even with the leading of the Holy Spirit).

Though Peter was not by training or inclination an overly scrupulous Jew, and though as a Christian his inherited prejudices were gradually wearing thin, he was not prepared to go so far as to minister directly to Gentiles. A special revelation was necessary for that, and Luke now tells how God took the initiative in overcoming Peter’s reluctance. [Longenecker, 387.]

By now Peter is clear about what God is trying to teach him. He tells the people assembled in Cornelius’ home: “God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean” (10:28).

After Peter explains to his audience why he is in the house of a Gentile, he says to Cornelius: “May I ask why you sent for me?” (10:29). Cornelius then describes the details of the vision he received. He explains that an angel (“a man in shining clothes”) told him he was chosen to receive God’s grace (10:30-31). Cornelius describes how he was commanded by the angel to send for Peter.

Cornelius appreciates Peter having come to see him, a Gentile. The whole group is now ready to hear him. Cornelius says, “We are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us” (10:33). In the second telling of the Cornelius event, Luke makes it clear that Cornelius already knows why Peter is coming to see him. The angel told Cornelius that Peter “will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved” (11:14). Cornelius is expecting the gospel of salvation.

Peter’s speech (10:34-43)

Peter begins to speak to the group about the importance of Jesus’ work in repentance and conversion. This speech is similar in content to the one he gave on Pentecost (2:14-40). As with all the sermons and speeches in Acts, we are here reading only a summary of what Peter says. No doubt Peter’s message contains examples that illustrate his main points. Peter probably includes illustrations of Jesus’ healing and power, similar to those found in the Gospels.

The speech follows a familiar pattern, which we now expect from Luke’s summaries. In this case, Peter begins by describing John the Baptist’s mission, and then the work of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, Judea and Jerusalem. The speech moves into a discussion of the crucifixion and resurrection. Peter says that the apostles are witnesses to these facts, and are commanded to preach the gospel of peace. He also talks about the judgment to come, but especially that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (10:43).

This speech probably represents a summary of the standard apostolic preaching to Jews and Gentiles attending synagogues who are familiar with the Old Testament message. The Synoptic Gospels follow this general pattern in presenting their material on Jesus’ ministry. (Acts gives us only two examples of the form of apostolic preaching to purely pagan audiences. One is at Lystra (14:14-18) and the other at Athens (17:23-31). In such cases, the speaker needs to explain who the one true God is before moving on to his purpose in Jesus Christ.)

As devout people, Cornelius and the others are familiar with the Jewish Scriptures, the hope of a Messiah and the kingdom of God. They may well be aware that a man named Jesus performed miracles, attracted a following, and was killed. Peter suggests that they know something of “the message God sent to the people of Israel” and “the good news of peace through Jesus Christ” (10:36-37). In several ways, then, Cornelius and his family are prepared for what Peter is telling them.


Acts 10:34-43

Accepts people of every nation (10:34-35)

Peter begins his speech with the point that there are no impure or unclean people in God’s eyes in terms of their receiving salvation. God “accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (10:35). Peter himself is being educated on this point, as well as his audience. He is summarizing his own experience of God during the past few days, since seeing the vision of the animals.

Peter’s words — “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism” (11:34) — registers his own surprise at the new understanding he has just received, and which he can now pass on to others. The light is dawning in Peter’s mind that people are not acceptable to God simply because they are members of a particular nation, a nation that seeks to express its uniqueness in protective rituals. God accepts anyone “who fears him and does what is right” (19:35), that is, in simple terms, all who trust in him.

God’s choice of a people who experience his saving grace — whether the nation of Israel or individuals for salvation — rests on his unmerited act of grace. This includes receiving the Holy Spirit now and eternal life in the future. However, such grace, if it is accepted, calls forth a response of obedient service and faith toward God. That is, the people of God respect him and “do what is right.”

The prophets said that grace would one day be extended to all nations. For example, Isaiah spoke of a time when God would call Egyptians and Assyrians (two dreaded enemies of ancient Israel) as his people, along with the Israelites (19:25). But somehow God’s purpose was forgotten by the Jews who returned to Judea in the 6th century B.C. after their nation had been defeated by the Babylonians and sent into captivity. Upon their return, the Jews felt the need to protect their identity as Torah torchbearers against idol-worshipping Gentile paganism. Thus, the notion developed that Gentiles could become part of the people of God (whether nation or church) only if they first became law-observant, God-fearing Jews.

Good news of peace (10:36)

But now a new thing is happening: the “good news of peace through Jesus Christ” (10:36) — and it is being sent to Gentiles directly. The apostle Paul explains this peace as a two-fold endeavor. God’s purpose is to “create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace” (Ephesians 2:15). The gospel of salvation is meant to break down the enmity and differences between Jews and Gentiles, creating a single new people of the Spirit. Thus, spiritually speaking, there is no such thing as a “Jew” and a “Gentile.” They are all one in Christ (Galatians 3:28).

Jesus’ gospel of peace is meant “to reconcile both of them to God through the cross” (Ephesians 2:16). Thus, Jesus’ work establishes peace between humans and God, and between one branch of humans and all others. As Paul explains it, Jesus “came and preached peace to you who were far away [Gentiles] and peace to those who were near [Jews]” (verse 17).

“We are witnesses” (10:37-43)

Of course, Cornelius and his family do not yet fully understood what the good news of peace means to them specifically, as Gentiles. Peter is here to relate the meaning of the gospel to their lives — that they can share in the promise of salvation.

Though Peter assumes that his hearers already know something about this ministry…he proceeds to summarize it in greater detail than anywhere else in his recorded preaching. In scope and emphasis, the account is much like the portrayal of Jesus’ ministry in Mark’s Gospel. [ibid., 393.]

Since Peter has been one of the witnesses of everything Jesus did in Jerusalem, Judea and Galilee (10:39), his hearers can be confident in what he says. The task of witnessing includes giving the meaning of Jesus’ work during his ministry (10:39) and explaining the significance of his death and resurrection (10:41). Peter begins his accounting of Jesus’ ministry by first referring to the work of John the Baptist. Luke consistently makes John’s work of baptism as the turning point in God’s purpose with humanity, and the beginning point of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 3:316:16Acts 1:22).

Peter characterizes that ministry in terms of Jesus doing good and healing all who are under the power of the devil (10:38). The work of the Holy Spirit is central to Acts, and Luke here shows that the liberating works of Jesus are possible because God has anointed him with the power of the Spirit (10:38). Peter goes on to explain that the glorified Jesus has been given the authority to judge both the living and the dead. However, he doesn’t emphasize condemnation. Rather, as Hebrews tells us, Peter speaks of Jesus as the “author” of salvation and as a merciful and faithful high priest who makes “atonement for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:1017).

Peter presumably cites texts from the Old Testament as evidence, because he insists that “all the prophets testify about him” (10:43). And what they testify explains in what way Jesus is the judge of both living and dead: “That everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (10:43).


Acts 10:44-48

Holy Spirit poured out (10:44-46)

As Peter is making this point, something extraordinary interrupts his talk. Everyone listening to his message suddenly receives the Holy Spirit (10:44). (In Peter’s later summary of what happens, he said the interruption occurs, “As I began to speak…” (11:15). When Peter makes the point that Jesus is the one who forgives sins, he has said all that is necessary.)

When the group hears Peter talking about faith in Christ, they believed the message. They have faith — accepting their need for Jesus as Savior. Cornelius and his family (and presumably the others present) are devout and God-fearing people. They are praying people, ones who do good to others. But they had not received the Holy Spirit, which is the “sign” of those who are God’s people. When they respond positively to the news that Jesus Christ is their Savior and the hope of the world, they receive the Holy Spirit. Their allegiance is no longer in their own religious work, but in Jesus as their Savior. This change comes only when Cornelius and the others are confronted with making a choice about Jesus Christ.

How do Peter and the others know that Cornelius’ group have received the Holy Spirit? It is evident by a miraculous sign — “they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God” (10:46). In fact, the Spirit comes on these people in more or less the same way as he did upon the Jewish converts at Pentecost. For this reason, this event is sometimes called “the Gentile Pentecost.”

It is not possible to mistake this momentous event. “Just as the first Jewish believers had received the Spirit and praised God in other tongues on the day of Pentecost, so now these Gentiles received the identical gift of God.” [I. Howard Marshall, Acts (Tyndale New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans: 1996), 194.] The Holy Spirit is given only to those who believe in Jesus (Acts 11:17Galatians 3:2). It is an irrefutable sign that God accepts these Gentiles. Cornelius and the others respond to Peter’s message in faith and God accepts them, sealing them as his people with the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The six Jewish believers are astonished at this turn of events — “that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (10:45). But there is no refuting what occurs before their eyes — or in this case, their ears. The Jewish Christians know the Spirit has been given to the group because they “heard them speaking in tongues and praising God” (10:46).

The gift of tongues at Pentecost was speaking in various human languages. Here it is not so clear what is in view. If the group is speaking in other languages, which ones are they speaking in, and how would the Jewish observers know? Perhaps what is being described here are ecstatic utterances of a sort that are understood as praise to God. This may be, at least in part, the “tongues” that Paul describes. [1 Corinthians 12:7-112813:114:1-28.] In any case, these miraculous tongues and praises are given for the sake of the Jewish believers who came with Peter. They will later verify Peter’s contention before a board of Jerusalem believers that God accepts Gentiles into the church.

They were baptized (10:47-48)

Cornelius and the others believe and receive the Spirit, but they are not yet baptized. Baptism is a rite that symbolizes an individual’s having been cleansed of sin and “resurrected” to newness of life. It can also function as a sign to the believer that he or she has been received into the community of believers.

We should be careful about thinking in terms of a formula as though a person receives the Holy Spirit only after being baptized. This is obviously not the case here, as everyone receives the Holy Spirit before being baptized. However, baptism is an important ceremony to the individual’s Christian life in the same way that a marriage ceremony is a vital beginning point of a marriage. (But the ceremony doesn’t cause the marriage.) Although people are saved by faith, not baptism, the New Testament pattern is that all who have faith are also baptized in water.

With this in mind, when Peter sees that the group has already received the Holy Spirit, he says, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water” (10:47). He then orders that they should be baptized in Jesus’ name, in effect saying he (and the church) accept what God has already done.

A new direction

We should state once again what the Cornelius event means to the church. Not only can Gentiles be accepted into the church as Gentiles, it means that they can also be directly evangelized. They can become disciples in every sense of the word without having to become fully observant Jews. The Spirit baptizes people, whether they are Jews or Gentiles, into one body, the Israel of God (1 Corinthians 12:13).

The Jewish believers seem to understand this — that God accepts the Gentiles as they are. This is indicated in the fact that no one seems to suggest that Cornelius should be circumcised. However, the issue of circumcision for Gentile believers plagues the church for decades to come. As well, the question of whether Gentiles should live like Jews in such things as their eating habits will also continue to trouble the church.

Commentaries on Acts of the Apostles

Cornelius does not ask to be baptized. Nor does the church (Peter) ask him if he is interested in fellowshipping with the body of believers, hoping for a later conversion. From start to finish, God is operating his salvation upon Cornelius, who has little role in this part of the story except to accept what God is doing. William H. Willimon correctly says:

Cornelius is surprisingly passive in this story, as if he is someone who is being swept along, carried by events and reacting to actions quite beyond his power to initiate or control. This is the way it is with repentance. It is more than a decision we make (‘since I gave my life to Christ’; ‘since I took Jesus as my personal Savior’) or some good deed we offer to God; repentance is the joyful human response to God’s offer of himself to us. [100.]

In fact, all conversion accounts in Acts begin with God’s initiative through the Holy Spirit. God is always pictured as the One who begins and completes the process of repentance.

God is the chief actor in all Lukan accounts of conversion. Even the smallest details are attributed to the working of God. Conversion is not the result of skillful leadership by the community or even of persuasive preaching or biblical interpretation. In many accounts, such as those of Philip’s work with the Ethiopian, the mysterious hand of God directs everything. In other stories, such as the story of Peter and Cornelius, the church must be dragged kicking and screaming into the movements of God. Manipulation, strategic planning, calculating efforts by the community aimed at church growth are utterly absent. Even our much beloved modern notions of “free will” and personal choice and decision appear to play little role in conversion in Acts. Conversion is a surprising, unexpected act of divine grace. [ibid., 104.]

Luke’s story is about how the gospel reaches Rome, and Cornelius plays no further role in that story. He leaves Luke’s account as abruptly as Ananias does. Johannes Munck observes that “the narrative about Cornelius seems, from an historical point of view, to be left hanging in midair as a detached fragment.” [Munck, 107.]

We would like to know more about Cornelius’ subsequent history. How does he live out his life as a Christian? Does he continue to serve in the military? Does he get caught up in the church’s squabble over whether Gentiles should live like Jews, and what is his reaction? But Luke tells us nothing further about Cornelius, except that Peter stays with him for some time (10:48). Then the apostle goes to Jerusalem to answer his critics, and Cornelius becomes lost in the mist of history.

Luke has interests other than recounting the converted life of Cornelius. He wants to tell the story of how God opens salvation to the Gentiles. Once he tells that tale, Luke moves on to narrate other events that show the growth of the church, and the gospel being preached further afield.

Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012


Acts 11:1-18

The Gospel Goes to Gentiles, Part 2 (Acts 11)

The Gentile challenge

The conversion of Cornelius is a milestone in the church’s history. However, it doesn’t settle the troubling issues of the proper relationship of Jews to Gentiles within the body of believers. In fact, the church throughout Judea is soon buzzing with the tale that Peter met with and baptized Cornelius. Luke writes of the controversy: “The apostles and believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So that when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the uncircumcised believers criticized him and said, ‘You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them’” (11:1-3).

Luke makes a distinction between “the apostles and believers” (11:1) who hear about what Peter did and “the circumcised believers” who criticize them. This implies that the apostles and leaders of the Jerusalem church, as well as some believers in Judea, don’t have a problem with Peter’s actions in Caesarea. It is other circumcised believers of Jerusalem who think that Peter violated Judaistic regulations pertaining to the separation of Jews from Gentiles. (That is not to suggest that there is a formal “circumcision party” in the church at this time, though apparently there will be one later.)

The circumcised believers apparently do not criticize Peter for baptizing Cornelius. Rather, Peter is challenged because he enters the house where uncircumcised people are, and eats with them. (That he eats there is not directly stated by Luke but is inferred from Peter staying at Cornelius’ home for some days.) “The sting in the charge, of course, is found in the ancient symbolism of table-fellowship: to eat with someone is to share spiritually with them as well; by implication to eat with Gentiles is to collude in idolatry.” [Johnson, 197.]

Peter’s opponents are accusing him of abandoning his sacred Jewish heritage by associating with and eating with uncircumcised Gentiles. Some think he is putting the identity of the church community at risk. Thinking in terms of the Jewish paradigm of Israel as God’s holy nation, some emphasize that the church is a holy people. It is to be separate from the pollution of the world, including fraternizing with Gentiles. But now the church is tainted because one of its leaders violated ritual separation.

There may be another, more practical concern as well. The Hellenistic believers were persecuted and driven out of Jerusalem for their attacks on the foundations of Judaistic piety. Now Peter, a leading apostle, has disregarded the sacred and traditional laws of separation in order to associate with a Gentile. This may lead the Sanhedrin to persecute the remaining, and more conservative, Jewish converts in Jerusalem.

Peter explains his actions (11:4-17)

Peter needs to explain why he met with Cornelius and baptized him. He goes before the “circumcised believers” of Jerusalem (not the apostles!) and there “told them the whole story” (11:4). That is, he recites the events related to Cornelius’ conversion in sequence, step by step. In giving us a summary of what Peter says, Luke repeats, to a large degree, the material he includes in chapter 10. We need not tell the entire story again, though there are a couple of new pieces of information that should be mentioned.

Peter refers to the six circumcised disciples who go to Caesarea with him, and who also enter the home of Cornelius (11:12). The fact that he brings these six men with him to Jerusalem suggests that he expects to be challenged. These six men are important witnesses to what happened. They are circumcised believers, and hence their credentials as pious Jews (as well as Christians) should carry weight with the church in Jerusalem.

The six saw Cornelius and the other Gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit (10:45). Thus, they are witnesses to the fact that God put his stamp of approval on the whole occasion. More than this, the six believers also enter Cornelius’ home, and eat with him. They are more than witnesses for the truth of Peter’s story. These pious and observant Jewish Christians are also implicated in Peter’s actions at the house of Cornelius. Since they are respected members of the circumcision, the fact that they are willing to be “tainted” by being in a Gentile’s presence would help counter the objections being raised. Peter did not act alone.

More important, however, is that Peter can appeal to God as the One who orchestrated the meeting with Cornelius. Thus, Peter concludes his defense by saying, “If God gave them [the Cornelius group] the same gift he gave us…who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” (11:17). The important phrase here is “same gift.” The Gentiles experienced something similar in all essentials to that of the original Jewish disciples at Pentecost (2:1-5). That being so, they should have an equal membership in the body of Christ.

Peter argues that he went to the home of Cornelius, baptized him, and then fellowshipped with the group in response to God’s action. He didn’t do this simply on his own initiative or to play fast and loose with tradition. There has been a divine motivation in all this, beginning with his vision on the roof of Simon the tanner’s house.

For the moment, the Jerusalem disciples are satisfied with Peter’s explanation. “They had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life’” (11:18). On the surface, this appears to be the end of any controversy regarding the Gentiles. But that is not the case, as we shall see later in Acts.

Controversy continues

The conservative Jewish Christians acknowledge that Gentiles can receive the Holy Spirit before living the Jewish life. After all, Peter and the six witnesses show, through the miracles involved in the conversion of Cornelius, that God is behind the salvation of Gentiles. Perhaps they allow that Peter, in this extraordinary circumstance, needed to fellowship with uncircumcised Gentiles.

However, some in the church will claim that Gentiles should, after conversion, begin to fulfill all the requirements of the Torah, such as circumcision. Only after doing so can they be saved. No doubt, the more “zealous” [Zealous for the law, that is — not zealous for grace.] members of the Jerusalem church point out that many problems will be created in allowing formerly pagan Gentiles to fellowship with observant Jews. The Gentiles will ritually “defile” the Christian Jews and will then make it difficult for them to fellowship with non-Christian Jews.

The Jerusalem believers might also be concerned about the results if a large number of Gentiles become part of the church. What will that do to the standing of the church in Jerusalem? After all, the church is being closely watched by the Jewish leaders to see if it is upholding the standards of Judaistic worship. Any suspicion about the church fraternizing with Gentiles will create suspicion and rancor in the Jewish community. This will be a problem in other cities with a large Jewish population in which large-scale Gentile evangelization and conversion occur.

These issues are not solved nor even taken up by the Jerusalem church at this time. However, the questions will continue to linger — until the apostles find it necessary to call an unprecedented council (Acts 15). Meanwhile, the Jerusalem congregation struggles to remain acceptable to the Jewish authorities. If they fail in this regard, they will suffer the fate of the Hellenistic Jewish Christians who were persecuted and expelled (8:1).

Such fears may cause the Jerusalem mother church to acknowledge James as its leader, rather than any of the apostles. (The apostles probably agree that such a course is best, and in any case they soon have to leave the city.) James is known to be a scrupulous practitioner of the Torah, for which he is called “James the Just,” or “James the Righteous.” He enjoys a good reputation with the Jewish community. This will help diffuse any potential crisis with the Sanhedrin over the “Gentile question.”


Acts 11:19-30

The Church Expands to Syria
Acts 11:19-30

Preaching expands (11:19)

Regardless of doubts and questions by some of the members, the Jerusalem mother congregation confirms Peter’s action in baptizing the first Gentiles living in Judea. More importantly, God is showing his will that Gentiles should receive salvation and become part of the spiritual community, the church.

The stage is now set for Gentile evangelization. Luke is ready to launch into the main theme of his book, which is to show the expansion of gospel and the church throughout the Roman world. Luke leaves Peter in Jerusalem, to whom he will return in chapter 12 and then again briefly in chapter 15. After that, we won’t hear of him again, and Luke will focus on Paul.

Antioch (11:20)

Luke begins his story of the Gentile mission by recounting the proclamation of the gospel by Hellenistic Jews in Syrian Antioch. This city will soon become the staging area and springboard for missionary activity to other parts of the Roman Empire. It will also serve as kind of second headquarters area for the growing church. Antioch, the largest city of Syria, is on the Orontes River, about 300 miles north of Jerusalem and 20 miles inland from the Mediterranean. We should not confuse the ancient province of Syria with modern Syria, though the two overlap. The region of ancient Antioch is now in the southeastern corner of Turkey, and the Turkish city is called Antakya.

Josephus calls Antioch “the third city in the habitable earth that was under the Roman empire.” [Wars 3:29.] Antioch has between 500,000 and 800,000 people. Only Rome and Alexandria are larger. According to Josephus, the city has a particularly large Jewish population. [Ibid., 7:43.] Antioch is the capital of the Roman province of Syria. It is also an important commercial and economic center. The agricultural produce of the hinterland, and of the East, is shipped through Antioch, and then to destinations around the Mediterranean. Culturally, first-century Antioch is a melting pot of Greek, Roman, Semitic, Arabic and Persian influences. The city is also known for its loose morals.

The city was not only known for its sophistication and culture but also for its vices. The beautiful pleasure park of Daphne was a center for moral depravity of every kind, and the expression Daphnici mores became a proverb for depraved living. The Roman satirist Juvenal (A.D. 60-140) aimed one of his sharpest gibes at his own decadent Rome when he said the Orontes had flowed into the Tiber (Satirae 3.62), flooding the imperial city with the superstition and immorality of the East. [Longenecker, 399.]

The church in Antioch

When Luke opens his narrative, a flourishing church community in Antioch already exists. It will play a prominent part in his history of the gospel. No other city apart from Jerusalem appears as frequently in Luke’s story. For now, he portrays it as the church where the mission to the Gentiles in general begins (11:19-26). Antioch will soon become a mission-sponsoring church, sending Paul and Barnabas on tours of evangelism (13:1-3). Paul will use Antioch as his home base of operations.

The debate over Gentile religious life-styles will also come to a head in this city (14:26-15:2). A crisis will occur in Antioch over table fellowship when Peter refuses to eat with Gentiles after “certain men came from James” (Galatians 2:12). Luke, more interested in the unity of the church, does not mention this divisive event. It is in Antioch that Paul and Barnabas will separate their missions (15:36-40). The final time we will hear about Antioch is when Paul visits the church before beginning his final evangelistic tour (18:22).

Scattered Jews preach (11:19-21)

Luke introduces his Antioch story by referring back to “those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed” (11:19, referring to 8:1). Earlier, he mentioned these Hellenistic Jews as people who “preached the word wherever they went” (8:4). We’ve already learned that they went throughout Judea and Samaria (8:1). Now we discover that they are as far as Phoenicia (north of Caesarea), the island of Cyprus, and Antioch (11:19).

These exiled Jews from Jerusalem living in the areas Luke mentions preached the gospel, but only to other Jews (11:19). These individuals are pushing out beyond the areas where Peter and Philip have done missionary work — but not yet to Gentiles.

But then some Christian Jews from Cyprus and Cyrene come to Antioch and they begin to speak “to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus” (11:20). Unfortunately, the Greek text is somewhat unclear at this point. Some manuscripts have the word Hellenas (“Greeks”), but others read Hellenistas, which could mean “Grecian Jews.” However, the context indicates that these are Gentile Greeks and not Hellenistic Jews who are being evangelized. It would make little sense for Luke to say that the Antiochian Christians preach at first only to Jews (11:19), but then begin to speak to other “Jews” (11:20). Almost all of the Jews in Cyprus and Antioch are Hellenistic Jews. The Gentiles being reached here are most likely Gentiles who already have an interest in Judaism, for they would be more likely to have social contacts with these traveling Jews.

Cyprus and Cyrene (11:20)

Luke mentions in particular that the Jews preaching to Greeks are from Cyprus and Cyrene. Cyprus is an island in the eastern Mediterranean, near Antioch. Cyrene is in North Africa, in the territory included in Libya today. Jews from Cyrene are among those who had opposed Stephen (6:9). The Cyrenian Christian Jews may have come directly from Cyrene to Antioch. Or they may have been living in Jerusalem, and were converted after Stephen’s death. Perhaps the Lucian of Cyrene that Luke mentions later is one of these missionaries (13:1). Barnabas may also be one of these pioneers, as he came originally from Cyprus (4:36).

We don’t know what causes these individuals at Antioch to begin preaching the gospel to Gentiles. Luke presents the situation casually, as though no controversy occurs over it. It may be a gradual development, since Gentiles often attend synagogues. Or these dispersed Christian Jews may know about the conversion of Cornelius, and take it as a precedent, which it is. They preach a message about Jesus as Lord, rather than announcing him as the Messiah. Or in Luke’s words, they tell “the good news about the Lord Jesus” (11:21). The word “Lord” is more meaningful in Hellenistic culture; the word “Messiah” would appeal less to a Gentile audience.

The apostles are not in the forefront of missionary activity to non-Jews, just as they were not the leaders in Samaria. Although these people were probably leaders in the church at the time, they are nameless and unknown to us. They begin the process of widespread Gentile evangelization. Another decisive moment in the history of the apostolic church is occurring without the presence of the apostles.

He [Luke] emphasizes the part played by anonymous believers in spreading Christianity. Without detracting from the massive contribution of Paul or ignoring the significant roles of Peter and Philip, Luke makes it plain, as he has already done in the case of the [Judean] Christian communities, that so also, farther afield in Phoenicia and Cyprus, the gospel was first proclaimed by men whose names have not been recorded. [Neil, 143.]

Reacting to the urging of the Spirit, these unnamed Christians reap the harvest God provides. Luke tells us “the Lord’s hand was with them” as they preached (11:21). The Holy Spirit validates their testimony, and as a result “a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord” (11:21).

Barnabas is sent to Antioch (11:22)

It isn’t long before the church at Jerusalem hears about the large number of Gentile converts in Antioch. They decide to dispatch a delegation to check on the situation, as they did in the case of the Samaritan conversions (8:14). Perhaps some in Jerusalem are fearful that the evangelistic program is out of control. There may be a fear that if Gentiles come into the church in large numbers, they may overwhelm the Jewish cultural heritage. The issue of whether Gentile converts have to become practicing Jews has not yet been solved. This, too, may be a concern.

Jerusalem’s reaction is not necessarily hostile or fearful. Peter and John were sent to the Samaritans to establish a relationship with the Christians in Samaria. What they did was positive, in that the two apostles put a stamp of approval on the evangelization of Samaria, and drew Christian Jews and Samaritans more closely together. Jerusalem is still the residence of the Twelve (8:1). They are looked upon as those who are specially called and empowered to lead the church. Thus, it is natural for Jerusalem to act as overseer.

The man chosen to represent Jerusalem in Antioch is Barnabas, a Jew from Cyprus. Earlier, Luke mentioned that he has an outstanding reputation for piety and generosity among the believers at Jerusalem, and that he is respectful of the apostolic leadership (4:36-37). Thus the apostles can have total confidence in his analysis of the situation in Antioch. At the same time, Barnabas is a Jew from the Dispersion in Cyprus. He is a compatriot of people who established the church at Antioch (11:20). He can act as the link between the Hebrew and Hellenistic elements in the church. Thus, on two counts, Barnabas is the right choice to head the delegation.

Preaching is encouraged (11:23-24)

Barnabas has the nickname “Son of Encouragement” (4:36). He certainly lives up to his name in evaluating the progress of the gospel at Antioch. Luke says that when Barnabas sees “what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them” (11:23). How Barnabas knows the grace of God is working is not stated. Presumably the fact that so many Gentiles are accepting Jesus as Savior is considered proof in itself. Perhaps the evidence is in changed lives, or in a display of the gifts of the Spirit. Barnabas doesn’t find any defects in the new converts’ faith or theology. He simply encourages both missionaries and converts “to remain true to the Lord” (11:23).

While Luke doesn’t make an issue of it, the arrival of Barnabas in Antioch could have resulted in a crisis for the church. If he reacted negatively to the Gentile conversions, then the advance of the gospel at Antioch, and Paul’s future work, could have been derailed. But Barnabas is specially equipped to be able to see the hand of God at work in Antioch. He is, as Luke paints him, “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith” (11:24). Thus, he has the spiritual insight to recognize where and how God is working.

Barnabas brings Saul to Antioch (11:25)

Luke has said nothing about Paul’s whereabouts or work since he left Caesarea for his hometown of Tarsus (9:30). Though Luke does not mention it, Paul has probably been preaching the gospel message in his home area of Syria and Cilicia (Galatians 1:21), just as he had preached near Damascus (Acts 9:22). During these blank years, which some commentators say is nearly a decade, the Jerusalem church hears a report about his preaching. Paul summarizes their reaction in these words: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy” (Galatians 1:23-24).

The Jerusalem church and apostles praise God for the progress of the gospel, but apparently they make no effort to contact Paul. In the same way, there is no indication that Paul has any association with the church at Antioch, though Tarsus is not that far away from Tarsus. What is he doing then, and where is he?

It is certain that in some way Saul continued preaching after leaving Jerusalem and that this was known back in Jerusalem. Perhaps the five lashings he received at the hands of the synagogue authorities (2 Corinthians 11:24), together with some of his other afflictions and hardships enumerated in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27, occurred during those days in Tarsus, for they find no place in the records of his later missionary endeavors…. It also may have been during this period that he began to experience the loss of all things for Christ’s sake (cf. Philippians 3:8) through being disinherited by his family. [Longenecker, 402.]

During Barnabas’ stay in Tarsus, there are large-scale conversions at Antioch (11:24), just as there were before his arrival (11:21). The extent of Barnabas’ ministry is expanding so rapidly that he needs a co-worker. Barnabas is convinced that Paul will be the perfect choice to help evangelize Antioch. He already acted as Paul’s patron when he encouraged the Jerusalem church to accept him (9:27). Now, Barnabas again becomes Paul’s advocate. He goes to Tarsus looking for Paul, and finds him (11:25). The two of them return to Antioch, and teach large numbers of people for a year.

There’s one small point of interest that we should notice in connection with Paul’s rising star. In Acts 11:25 and in some succeeding passages, Luke mentions Barnabas first and Paul second (12:25; 13:1, 2, 7). But soon, he will shift the order, putting Paul first (13:43). However, Luke will again place Barnabas first (14:14; 15:12, 25), though Paul will be in first position at times (13:46, 50; 14:20; 15:2, 22, 35). There seems to be no consistency to this except that Luke balances the relationship. Each is listed in first position eight times.

They are called Christians (11:26)

During the time of church expansion at Antioch, outsiders begin to call the disciples by the term “Christian” (11:26). In the Greek noun form it is Cristianoi. This is a way of verbally identifying a follower of a group. For example, those of the party of Herod are Herodianoi. TheCaesariani are those who belong to the party of Caesar. Members of one of the major Jewish religious sects are the Pharisaioi.

“Christian” is not a term the disciples generally use for themselves. They prefer such names as “brothers,” “disciples,” or “saints.” The two other occurrences of the word “Christian” in the Bible are references to the church made by outsiders such as Agrippa (Acts 26:28) and persecutors in general (1 Peter 4:16). “It appears to have originated, therefore, as a somewhat slighting designation given not by the ‘believers’ themselves but by hostile observers (see also Tacitus, Annals 15.44).” [Johnson, 205.]

The use of the name “Christian” by outsiders may indicate that people in Antioch realize that the church is not just another sect of Judaism — it includes Gentiles as well. This realization is risky to the church. As long as it is seen as another variant of Judaism, the church is better able to obtain protection from Rome as a religio licita — a legal religion. Judaism has long enjoyed such protection, and it would be helpful for the church to continue to claim that umbrella for itself.

Of course, there is a continuity between Judaism and the church. Both believe in the one God of Israel; both claim the same Holy Scriptures; both espouse a similar moral code. (Even today we speak of the “Judeo-Christian” ethic.) The decisive difference, of course, is that the church places its faith in Jesus Christ as the Messiah and the author of salvation. Outsiders would see a practical difference, too: Jews tended to keep to themselves, whereas the Christians were eating with Gentiles (Galatians 2:12).

Prophets from Jerusalem (11:27)

Luke now breaks off his discussion of the church’s mission in Antioch to tell his readers about some church prophets who come from Jerusalem. However, he mentions only a single prophecy by a man named Agabus.

Prophets are important in the early church. Luke mentions them several times in Acts (13:1; 15:32; 21:9-10). Paul lists prophets as belonging to a God-ordained function in the church (1 Corinthians 12:28Ephesians 4:11). The church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, and he ranks the latter next after apostles (Ephesians 2:20). He also recognizes prophets as having an important charismatic function (1 Corinthians 14:29-33Ephesians 3:5).

Prophets in the Old Testament had a dual function, to foretell and to forth-tell. In speaking forth, they foretold the future and/or told God’s will. Agabus apparently is known for his foretelling, that is, his predictions. We shall hear from him again later in Acts (21:10).

Agabus tells of famine (11:28)

At Antioch, Agabus prophesies “through the Spirit” that a severe famine will spread over the entire Roman world (11:28). Luke wants his readers to understand that Agabus’ prediction is not a hoax. The Holy Spirit inspires him, and thus his prophecy has important meaning for the church. Agabus apparently doesn’t say exactly when the famine will occur. But Luke, writing many years after the event, inserts the parenthetical statement that, “This happened during the reign of Claudius” (11:28). Emperor Claudius rules from A.D. 41-54.

In speaking of a severe famine that will spread over the entire “Roman world,” Luke uses the Greek word oikoumene. It literally means the “inhabited world,” and is commonly used to refer to the Roman Empire, in Latin the orbis terrarum. We have no record of a single famine ravaging the whole empire in the time of Claudius. However, there is good supporting evidence from secular historians that extensive famines did occur throughout his reign. Agabus may mean that a series of famines in various parts of the empire would strike at different times. Taken together, the Roman Empire as a whole suffers from famine.

A number of Roman historians refer to various crop failures and famine conditions during the reign of Claudius. [Suetonius, Life of Claudius 18.2; Tacitus, Annals 12.43; Dio Cassius, History of Rome 60.11; Orosious, History 7.6.17.] Josephus writes of a severe famine that hits Judea in what is thought to be about A.D. 45-47. [Antiquities 20:49-53, 101; 3:320-321.]

F.F. Bruce says, “We know from other sources that Claudius’s principate was marked by a succession of bad harvests and consequent scarcity in various parts of the empire — in Rome, Greece, and Egypt as well as in Judaea.” [230.] This includes famine conditions in Rome itself at the beginning of Claudius’ rule, in Egypt during his fifth year, throughout Greece in his eighth or ninth year, and in Rome again between his ninth and eleventh year. Suetonius speaks of “a series of droughts” that cause “a scarcity of grain” that hits Rome especially hard. [Claudius 18.2.]

Josephus tells the story of Helena, queen-mother of the territory of Adiabene, and a Jewish proselyte. [Antiquities 20:49-53.] During a severe famine in Judea, she purchases grain in Egypt and figs in Cyprus. Helena has these transported to Jerusalem for distribution to the famine-stricken population. Meanwhile, her son King Izates sends a large sum of money to the Jerusalem authorities to be used for famine relief. Josephus said this famine occurs during the rule of Cuspius Fadus and Tiberius Julius Alexander. [Ibid., 20:101.] That would be between A.D. 44 and 48.

Disciples help other believers (11:29)

Just as queen Helena and her son Izates helped the Jews in Jerusalem, the disciples at Antioch organize a relief fund for the mother-church. Luke says, “As each one was able, [they] decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea” (11:29). The members apparently contribute money and goods to this special fund. In a later collection, organized by Paul for the churches in Judea, he advises that the Greeks should “set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income” (1 Corinthians 16:2).

Luke’s mention of the relief fund for Judea ends the section on Antioch. It may seem to be an abrupt conclusion, but it is a fitting one. In the words of William Willimon, “The new congregation in Antioch — composed of gentiles who a short time before were considered questionable subjects for the gospel — responds generously to the appeal for help in Judea.” [108.] Thus, the Gentile and Hellenistic Christians of Antioch prove their faith and love (and their unity with the mother church) by sharing their material possessions with those less fortunate. While less dramatic than the story of the Jerusalem Christians sharing their goods (2:44-45 and 4:32-37), this also illustrates the continuing church practice to aid its poor.

The church, under the encouragement of its leading apostles, will “continue to remember the poor,” something that Paul says he is “eager to do” (Galatians 2:10). Paul will call his own future multi-church relief fund a “contribution for the poor among the Lord’s people in Jerusalem” (Romans 15:25-31, with 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 and 2 Corinthians 8-9).

Commentaries on Acts of the Apostles

It seems that the Jerusalem church is living on the edge of destitution. Its more wealthy members may have been the Hellenists who fled the city. The early practice of selling personal property to contribute to the common fund may have reduced the economic strength of the church community. Thus, it is ill-prepared to cope with a famine that strains its resources to the breaking point. But the brothers and sisters in Antioch save the day.

Gift is sent to elders (11:30)

Once the relief fund is collected, Barnabas and Paul carry it to the elders in Jerusalem for disposition (11:30). This is the first time “elders” are mentioned in the church at Jerusalem, and they now seem to have charge of the relief fund. Earlier, the apostles delegated this responsibility to people who were known as the “Seven” (6:1-6). Perhaps some of them, as well as others, became known as “elders.” Apparently, elders are leaders appointed to serve in the churches (14:23; 20:17). They seem to function just below the apostles (15:4, 6, 22; 16:4; 21:18).

Perhaps more than coincidentally, “elders” is the name given to leaders of Jewish synagogues. With the influence of Judaism strong in the early church, it’s possible that the early church is following the Jewish form of organization, at least to some degree.

Paul’s trip to Jerusalem (11:30)

Paul brings the relief fund to Jerusalem; this brings up the question of the relationship of this visit to the two visits he mentions in Galatians (1:18; 2:1). Most commentators correlate the first visit of Galatians with the one of Acts 9:26-29, and that is not a problem. The real question revolves around the second visit of Galatians 2:1-10, the one he makes 14 years after his conversion. Often, this is identified with Paul’s trip to attend the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15.

Others, however, feel that this visit correlates better with the famine-relief visit here in Acts 11. In the words of Richard N. Longenecker, “The simplest solution that provides the most satisfactory and convincing reconstruction and leaves the fewest loose ends” is to correlate the visit of Galatians 2:1-10 with this famine visit of Acts 11. [Longenecker, 405.] If that be the case, then Paul’s comment that he goes to Jerusalem “in response to a revelation” (Galatians 2:2) is explained by Acts 11:28. The revelation is Agabus’ prophecy of famines around the Empire. That means that Paul’s visit to Jerusalem in Acts 15 is a third visit to the city, one he doesn’t mention in Galatians. (Perhaps Galatians was written before he went to Jerusalem for the Acts 15 council.)

Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012



Acts 11-27-12:3

Prophets from Jerusalem (11:27)

Luke now breaks off his discussion of the church’s mission in Antioch to tell his readers about some church prophets who come from Jerusalem. However, he mentions only a single prophecy by a man named Agabus.

Prophets are important in the early church. Luke mentions them several times in Acts (13:1; 15:32; 21:9-10). Paul lists prophets as belonging to a God-ordained function in the church (1 Corinthians 12:28Ephesians 4:11). The church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, and he ranks the latter next after apostles (Ephesians 2:20). He also recognizes prophets as having an important charismatic function (1 Corinthians 14:29-33Ephesians 3:5).

Prophets in the Old Testament had a dual function, to foretell and to forth-tell. In speaking forth, they foretold the future and/or told God’s will. Agabus apparently is known for his foretelling, that is, his predictions. We shall hear from him again later in Acts (21:10).

Agabus tells of famine (11:28)

At Antioch, Agabus prophesies “through the Spirit” that a severe famine will spread over the entire Roman world (11:28). Luke wants his readers to understand that Agabus’ prediction is not a hoax. The Holy Spirit inspires him, and thus his prophecy has important meaning for the church. Agabus apparently doesn’t say exactly when the famine will occur. But Luke, writing many years after the event, inserts the parenthetical statement that, “This happened during the reign of Claudius” (11:28). Emperor Claudius rules from A.D. 41-54.

In speaking of a severe famine that will spread over the entire “Roman world,” Luke uses the Greek word oikoumene. It literally means the “inhabited world,” and is commonly used to refer to the Roman Empire, in Latin the orbis terrarum. We have no record of a single famine ravaging the whole empire in the time of Claudius. However, there is good supporting evidence from secular historians that extensive famines did occur throughout his reign. Agabus may mean that a series of famines in various parts of the empire would strike at different times. Taken together, the Roman Empire as a whole suffers from famine.

A number of Roman historians refer to various crop failures and famine conditions during the reign of Claudius. [Suetonius, Life of Claudius 18.2; Tacitus, Annals 12.43; Dio Cassius, History of Rome 60.11; Orosious, History 7.6.17.] Josephus writes of a severe famine that hits Judea in what is thought to be about A.D. 45-47. [Antiquities 20:49-53, 101; 3:320-321.]

F.F. Bruce says, “We know from other sources that Claudius’s principate was marked by a succession of bad harvests and consequent scarcity in various parts of the empire — in Rome, Greece, and Egypt as well as in Judaea.” [230.] This includes famine conditions in Rome itself at the beginning of Claudius’ rule, in Egypt during his fifth year, throughout Greece in his eighth or ninth year, and in Rome again between his ninth and eleventh year. Suetonius speaks of “a series of droughts” that cause “a scarcity of grain” that hits Rome especially hard. [Claudius 18.2.]

Josephus tells the story of Helena, queen-mother of the territory of Adiabene, and a Jewish proselyte. [Antiquities 20:49-53.] During a severe famine in Judea, she purchases grain in Egypt and figs in Cyprus. Helena has these transported to Jerusalem for distribution to the famine-stricken population. Meanwhile, her son King Izates sends a large sum of money to the Jerusalem authorities to be used for famine relief. Josephus said this famine occurs during the rule of Cuspius Fadus and Tiberius Julius Alexander. [Ibid., 20:101.] That would be between A.D. 44 and 48.

Disciples help other believers (11:29)

Just as queen Helena and her son Izates helped the Jews in Jerusalem, the disciples at Antioch organize a relief fund for the mother-church. Luke says, “As each one was able, [they] decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea” (11:29). The members apparently contribute money and goods to this special fund. In a later collection, organized by Paul for the churches in Judea, he advises that the Greeks should “set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income” (1 Corinthians 16:2).

Luke’s mention of the relief fund for Judea ends the section on Antioch. It may seem to be an abrupt conclusion, but it is a fitting one. In the words of William Willimon, “The new congregation in Antioch — composed of gentiles who a short time before were considered questionable subjects for the gospel — responds generously to the appeal for help in Judea.” [108.] Thus, the Gentile and Hellenistic Christians of Antioch prove their faith and love (and their unity with the mother church) by sharing their material possessions with those less fortunate. While less dramatic than the story of the Jerusalem Christians sharing their goods (2:44-45 and 4:32-37), this also illustrates the continuing church practice to aid its poor.

The church, under the encouragement of its leading apostles, will “continue to remember the poor,” something that Paul says he is “eager to do” (Galatians 2:10). Paul will call his own future multi-church relief fund a “contribution for the poor among the Lord’s people in Jerusalem” (Romans 15:25-31, with 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 and 2 Corinthians 8-9).

Gift is sent to elders (11:30)

It seems that the Jerusalem church is living on the edge of destitution. Its more wealthy members may have been the Hellenists who fled the city. The early practice of selling personal property to contribute to the common fund may have reduced the economic strength of the church community. Thus, it is ill-prepared to cope with a famine that strains its resources to the breaking point. But the brothers and sisters in Antioch save the day.

Once the relief fund is collected, Barnabas and Paul carry it to the elders in Jerusalem for disposition (11:30). This is the first time “elders” are mentioned in the church at Jerusalem, and they now seem to have charge of the relief fund. Earlier, the apostles delegated this responsibility to people who were known as the “Seven” (6:1-6). Perhaps some of them, as well as others, became known as “elders.” Apparently, elders are leaders appointed to serve in the churches (14:23; 20:17). They seem to function just below the apostles (15:4, 6, 22; 16:4; 21:18).

Perhaps more than coincidentally, “elders” is the name given to leaders of Jewish synagogues. With the influence of Judaism strong in the early church, it’s possible that the early church is following the Jewish form of organization, at least to some degree.

Paul’s trip to Jerusalem (11:30)

Paul brings the relief fund to Jerusalem; this brings up the question of the relationship of this visit to the two visits he mentions in Galatians (1:18; 2:1). Most commentators correlate the first visit of Galatians with the one of Acts 9:26-29, and that is not a problem. The real question revolves around the second visit of Galatians 2:1-10, the one he makes 14 years after his conversion. Often, this is identified with Paul’s trip to attend the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15.

Others, however, feel that this visit correlates better with the famine-relief visit here in Acts 11. In the words of Richard N. Longenecker, “The simplest solution that provides the most satisfactory and convincing reconstruction and leaves the fewest loose ends” is to correlate the visit of Galatians 2:1-10 with this famine visit of Acts 11. [Longenecker, 405.] If that be the case, then Paul’s comment that he goes to Jerusalem “in response to a revelation” (Galatians 2:2) is explained by Acts 11:28. The revelation is Agabus’ prophecy of famines around the Empire. That means that Paul’s visit to Jerusalem in Acts 15 is a third visit to the city, one he doesn’t mention in Galatians. (Perhaps Galatians was written before he went to Jerusalem for the Acts 15 council.)

Peter Freed From Prison (Acts 12)

About this time (12:1)

Luke next turns his attention to an important episode of persecution against the Jerusalem church, which results in one item of sad news, and another of joy. He relates the death of the apostle James (the brother of John) (12:2), Peter’s arrest and miraculous escape from prison (12:3-19), and the death of Herod (12:19-23). As we shall see, the three events form one unit with a special message for readers.

These things apparently happen during the same general period of time as the growth of the church in Antioch (11:19-26), and before Paul’s trip to Jerusalem (11:27-30). Using secular records, historians place Herod’s death (12:20-23) in a.d. 44, while Paul’s visit to Jerusalem (11:30) may be two years later. Therefore, in recording the events of chapter 12, Luke backtracks, going behind the story of the Antioch church and Paul’s trip to Jerusalem.

The persecution of James and Peter may be connected to bringing Cornelius into the church fellowship. Hence, chapter 12 describes events beginning sometime soon after Peter’s defense of his visit to Cornelius in front of the Jerusalem church (11:1-18).

Herod the king

Luke begins his account of persecution against the Jerusalem church by writing: “It was about this time King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them” (12:1). The King Herod mentioned here is the grandson of “Herod the Great,” who ruled Judea before Jesus’ birth (Luke 1:5), tried to kill the infant Jesus (Matthew 2), and died in 4 b.c. He was a Jew of Idumaean (Edomite) descent on his father’s side. He refurbished the Jerusalem temple and built a splendid complex around it. [Herod was a brutal and self-aggrandizing ruler. His building projects included the temple in Jerusalem, the artificial harbor at Caesarea Maritima, and pagan temples in other cities.]

The second Herod prominent in the biblical account is “Herod the Tetrarch,” or Herod Antipas, who ruled Galilee and Perea. He pops in and out of Luke’s account throughout Jesus’ life. [Luke 3:1198:39:7-913:3123:7-15Acts 4:27.] He is the Herod who executes John the Baptist and meets Jesus just before his crucifixion. The Romans depose him in a.d. 39.

The King Herod of Acts 12 is more precisely called “Herod Agrippa I.” He dies in a.d. 44, as Luke will soon describe. Over time, various emperors give him more territories to rule, and his kingdom becomes larger than his grandfather’s. Herod Agrippa I is a descendant of the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty through his grandmother Mariamne. The Hasmoneans, also called Maccabees, were a family of high priests and kings who descended from Hashmon. They ruled Judea between 165 and 37 b.c.

Apostles are persecuted

Probably in the early spring of a.d. 43, or perhaps 44, Herod begins to persecute the church, particularly in Jerusalem. It appears that this time the apostles and leaders of the church are the intended victims. Rome holds Herod responsible for keeping peace in his territories. Almost certainly, then, he does not undertake the persecution without a reason, or apart from the desires of the Jewish authorities and populace in general.

The persecution of the apostles signals a change in the attitude of the Jewish community in Jerusalem and Judea. Earlier, after Stephen’s death, the Hellenistic Christian Jews were singled out for persecution. However, the apostles and Hebraic Jewish Christians were apparently not persecuted or suppressed (8:1). The apostles were still respected by the people since they remained observant Jews (3:1). Their miraculous works caused the populace to hold them in awe as God’s instruments for good (3:9; 5:13). The Pharisees were cautious about persecuting the apostles (5:34-39); only the Sadducee-dominated Sanhedrin had threatened them.

What turns the people of Jerusalem and Judea against the apostles? The answer may lie with Peter’s evangelizing work. First, he teaches among the despised Samaritans. Worse still, he fellowships with and baptizes the Gentile Cornelius, without requiring that he live as a Jew. We know that the church in Jerusalem quickly hears about Peter eating with “uncircumcised men,” referring to Cornelius and those with him (11:3). He is severely criticized even by the Jewish Christians; the scandal is presumably much greater for unconverted Jews. The rumor quickly spreads that Peter allows “unclean” Gentiles to taint the community of Israel.

People may see Peter, and by implication the other apostles, as abandoning the Torah and committing a terrible offense against the community. The Jewish leaders enlist the help of Herod to rid the land of the heretic Peter and his co-workers. Peter’s action has the potential to cause riots in Jerusalem, creating a problem for Herod, who is accountable to Rome for revolts and disturbances within his jurisdiction. He may feel threatened politically by the results of Peter’s action, because the Jews are making an issue of it.

Agrippa’s policy was the Pax Romana through the preservation of the status quo. He supported the majority within the land and ruthlessly suppressed minorities when they became disruptive. He viewed Jewish Christians as divisive and felt their activities could only disturb the people and inflame antagonisms. [Richard Longenecker, “Acts,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9 (ed. Frank E. Gaebelein; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), page 408.]

James, the brother of John (12:2)

To deal with the problem, Herod Agrippa I arrests some of the church leaders at Jerusalem. He singles out James, the brother of John, and has him killed. When the Jews voice their pleasure at this, Herod imprisons Peter, intending to put him on trial after Passover (12:3-4). It’s not clear why James is singled out first. Perhaps as one of the “sons of thunder” he thundered out a Stephen-like defense of Peter’s action before Jewish groups. Perhaps he is chosen as an object lesson to the others. It is obvious that Herod means business, and that Peter will die, too, unless God intervenes.

Herod wants to get into the good graces of his Jewish subjects. He knows that they hate him and his family, so he takes whatever opportunity he can find to gain their cooperation. In Jerusalem, Herod even acts the part of an observant Jew. Now, a new ploy is available. Executing the leaders of the heretical Christian community will (he hopes) make his subjects more favorably disposed toward him.

In his short reign of three years (A.D. 41-4) he sought to counter the distaste on the part of the Jewish religious leaders for his Roman background and Edomite ancestry by his sedulous observance of Jewish customs and support of the Jewish faith; it was, no doubt, as part of this policy that he sought to win general approval by this attack on the Nazarenes [the Christians]. [E. William Neil, The Acts of the Apostles, The New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), page 148.]

By beheading James, Herod is making a gesture of solidarity with the Jewish majority. It is a public relations ploy to demonstrate his loyalty to Judaism.

Peter is jailed (12:3-4)

The seven days of the festival of Unleavened Bread are just beginning when Peter is arrested (12:3). (Luke also refers to the entire festival as the “Passover” in 12:4.) Peter remains in jail until the festival is over. Herod intends to put Peter on trial and then execute him. But he waits until the festival ends because a public execution during the sacred season would offend the people. We remember that the chief priests didn’t want to arrest and execute Jesus during the festival of Unleavened Bread “or the people may riot” (Mark 14:2).

Ironically, Peter’s imprisonment comes during Passover, the feast of unleavened bread, the great and festive day of deliverance from Egyptian slavery. This day finds Peter languishing in bondage, not celebrating liberation. The people who once saw God deliver them from slavery now make prisoners of their own kin during the feast of liberation — a bitter irony Luke does not want us to miss. [William Willimon, Acts (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1988), 112.]


Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012


Acts 12:5-25

Church prays earnestly (12:5)

While Peter is in prison, the church is “earnestly praying to God for him” (12:5). Here and throughout Acts Luke points out to his readers that prayer is central to the life of the church. In this case, the Jerusalem church is facing a life-threatening crisis. There is no doubt as to what Herod, and the Sanhedrin with him, are intending to do. The goal is to eliminate the leaders of the church and persecute the believers who accept Gentiles.

The church has no weapons against the forces arrayed against it. Their only recourse is to depend on God to make his will known, with the hope that Peter will be rescued and the church saved. Meanwhile, the apostle is languishing in the dungeon. Herod takes every precaution to make sure that Peter does not escape — he may know about Peter’s former escape (5:19-24).

Peter is probably in the Antonia fortress, the military barracks where Paul is later confined (21:31-23:32). The fortress overlooks the temple. Peter is guarded by four squads of four soldiers each, probably on a rotating basis. He sleeps bound with two chains between two soldiers, with sentries standing guard at the entrance of his cell. Luke notes that Peter is sleeping peacefully on the eve of his trial and execution (12:6). He has faith in his Savior that whatever happens to him, his life is safe in Christ. Perhaps he also remembers that Jesus said he would live to old age (John 21:18).

Peter escapes (12:7-10)

Suddenly, an angel appears, and Peter’s cell is lit up. The angel nudges him sharply and he wakes up. “Quick, get up!” the angel demands (12:7). The angel tells Peter to put on his day clothes and wrap his outer garment around him. He follows the angel out of the prison. On the way out, they pass two guard posts, and as they approach the prison gate, it opens by itself. Peter is now in the city streets of Jerusalem, and the angel leaves him.

Peter is still in a daze, half asleep, thinking that his experience with the angel is simply a vivid dream. One can understand Peter’s confusion, as everything that is happening is in all respects contrary to normal. Finally, Peter “comes to himself” and realizes the dream-like scene is real. Luke records Peter’s thoughts as he walks along the quiet streets: “Now I know without a doubt the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were hoping would happen” (12:11).

The power of the resurrected Jesus is working mightily in his apostles and church. We may wonder why God allows Peter to escape but James to die. There is no easy answer except that they are among the mysteries of God. It has always been that way among God’s people. God rescues some of his servants to do his work and others are killed while doing it (Hebrews 11:32-37). In Peter’s case, God steps in and saves him (and with him, the rest of the Jerusalem church). Whatever plans Herod and the Sanhedrin may have to destroy the community of believers is stopped for the moment. As we shall soon see, the power behind the plot, Herod, will soon be eliminated.

Mary, mother of Mark (12:12)

After his release, Peter heads for the place where a house-church of the Jerusalem congregation is meeting. This one is in the home of Mary, the mother of Mark (12:12). (The fact that she is mentioned as the head of the household indicates that she is a widow.) This is apparently a sizable home, for “many people” gathered there (12:12). Mary has at least one house servant, Rhoda. Obviously, the faithful Christian Jews did not sell all their possessions to donate to the common fund (2:44-45; 4:32-35). Donations are made on an as-needed basis and do not necessarily involve selling everything one owns. The fact that Mary keeps this home turns out to be a great and continuing benefit to the church in that it has a private place to meet.

As for Mary’s son, he has both a Jewish name (John) and a Roman one (Mark, or Marcus), as do various other characters in Acts, including Paul (1:23; 13:9). John Mark will become an important figure in Luke’s story. He will accompany Barnabas and Paul to Antioch after they complete their relief-mission to Jerusalem (12:25). Then, he will accompany the pair on their first missionary journey (13:5). However, for some reason, Mark will abandon the mission and return to Jerusalem (13:13). This will result in a contentious split between Barnabas and Paul (15:37-39). In later years, both Paul and Peter will mention a person named Mark as a co-worker in their missionary work (2 Timothy 4:11Philemon 241 Peter 5:12). He is thought to be the Mark mentioned here.

Post-apostolic Christian writers refer to Mark as “the interpreter of Peter” and the founder of the church in Alexandria. Eusebius (c. a.d. 260-339), bishop of Caesarea, regarded by his contemporaries as the greatest Christian scholar of his time and “the father of church history,” recounts a number of traditions about Mark. Among other things, he is called “the companion” and “interpreter” of Peter, as well as the writer of a Gospel at Rome. [Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.15-16; 3.39; 5.8; 6.14.]

Church astonished (12:13-17)

When Peter knocks on the outer entrance of Mary’s house, the servant Rhoda answers. She recognizes Peter’s voice and is so overjoyed that she forgets to open the door. Rhoda runs back into the house to announce, “Peter is at the door” (12:14). “You’re out of your mind,” the church tells her in unison (12:15).

Earlier, the apostles (Peter included) had a similar response to the women’s claim that Jesus’ tomb was empty. There, the disciples said their words “seemed to them like nonsense” (Luke 24:11). Note, also, the fearful and incredulous reaction of the disciples (Peter included again) to Jesus suddenly appearing in their midst (Luke 24:36-40). How slow we are to respond to the words of God, especially when they contradict our understanding of reality!

When Rhoda keeps insisting that it is Peter’s voice, the church answers, “It must be his angel” (12:15). They apparently think, as many people in the first century do, that guardian angels exist, and are a kind of spirit counterpart resembling the person. Meanwhile, Peter keeps banging on the door. Someone finally opens it, and a thoroughly astonished church gapes at him as though he is a ghost.

Commentators often remark about Luke’s almost slapstick account of Peter’s escape and the church’s refusal to believe it really is him standing at its door. It begins with the comic scene of Peter’s escape from jail juxtaposed with Herod’s serious intent to keep him safely locked away. The disbelieving reaction to Peter’s release by a church who is earnestly praying for God to save Peter is also ironic. These purposely lighthearted scenes are meant to make a serious point: God works his purpose in mysterious ways that humans find hard to understand.

The unfolding scene is one of confusion and joyful humor, which must have led to hilarity every time it was repeated among the early believers. There was Peter’s knocking, becoming more and more urgent as he beat on the door; Rhoda’s losing her wits for joy and forgetting to open the door; the Christians’ refusal to believe it was Peter, even though they had just been praying for him; their belittling of Rhoda (“You are out of your mind.”)… and of her saying she had heard Peter’s voice at the door (“It must be his angel”); Rhoda’s frantic persistence; and their utter astonishment when they finally opened the door and let him in. [Longenecker, 410.]

“Tell James” (12:17)

There is probably a joyous outcry when the disciples at Mary’s house finally realize that Peter is really there. He has to quiet the group to explain how God rescued him from prison. After finishing his explanation and saying his goodbyes, Peter asks his listeners to “tell James and the other brothers and sisters about this” (12:17). The James mentioned here is Jesus’ half-brother, [Mark 3:216:3Matthew 13:55John 7:5.] not the apostle. (James the apostle, the brother of John, was killed a few days ago.) Along with his brothers and sisters, James did not believe in Jesus before the Resurrection. But, as Luke has told us, James and his siblings were among the disciples meeting together before Pentecost (1:14). (In 1 Corinthians 15:7, Paul mentions that the resurrected Jesus appeared to James.)

This is the first mention of this James in the book of Acts. It is obvious from the way that Peter singles out James in Acts 12:17 that he is prominent in the Jerusalem church. Peter and the other original apostles are the primary spiritual leaders of the Christian community at large, but James seems to have a more visible leadership role in the Jerusalem church. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul calls James “the Lord’s brother” and implies that he is one of its “pillars” (1:19, 2:9). Luke describes James as the leader of the Jerusalem church about a decade later (21:18).

Luke doesn’t explain how or why the shift in leadership from Peter to James occurs in the Jerusalem church. (Luke focuses on the expansion of Christianity toward Rome, not the details of one particular congregation.) Antagonism in Jerusalem against people who seem to be untrue to Israel’s traditions may cause the church to choose James as the leader, because he is acceptable to the Jewish community.

Also, growing numbers of Jews from a Pharisaic and priestly background are being converted in Jerusalem (6:7; 15:5; 21:20). Someone who is regarded as scrupulously Jewish, who respects the traditions, is needed to lead the congregation. Peter is tainted because of his association with Samaritans and Gentiles like Cornelius. The church in the city needs to be represented by someone known to be respectful of Jewish traditions, and whose qualifications in that regard are beyond reproach. The obvious person is James, who is called “the Just” because of his fastidious piety.

Hegesippus, a second-century Christian of Jerusalem, preserves a tradition, repeated by Eusebius, that James’ knees are like camel’s knees from his frequent prayers for the people. Such is his reputation as a pious man. Eusebius also preserves an ancient tradition that says it is the apostles themselves who chose James to be the leader of the Jerusalem church. [Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.23, 2.1.]

James acquires this authority in the church fairly early. At the time of Peter’s escape from Herod in the mid-a.d. 40s, James seems to be the leader of the Jerusalem church (12:17). A few years later, in a.d. 49, James presides over the Jerusalem Council as chief spokesperson of the church. He has authority to finalize what churches in areas outside Jerusalem should practice (15:13-21).

James continues to maintain his presence in Jerusalem for many years (21:17-25) until the high priest has him killed in perhaps a.d. 62. [Josephus, Antiquities 20:200-201.] Eusebius preserves a tradition that James is thrown from a wing of the temple and beaten to death with a club. [Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.1, 23.] This is done because James and some others (probably Christians) are condemned as “breakers of the law.” This happens between the death of the Roman governor Festus in about a.d. 62 and the coming of the next governor, Albinus. (That is, when there is no Roman ruler to maintain order.)

Josephus has a brief account of this, in which he criticizes the high priest for having James murdered. The Pharisees protest this travesty of justice to Herod Agrippa II, and eventually the high priest has his office taken away from him. [Josephus, Antiquities 20:197-203.]

James had a statesmanlike breadth of vision, as appears from his policy at the Council of Jerusalem (15:13-21). But he was careful to retain the confidence of the ordinary church members in Jerusalem, many of whom were “zealots for the law” (21:20). In addition, he continued to the end to command the respect of the Jerusalem populace, largely because of his ascetic way of life and his regular participation in the temple services of prayer, where he interceded for the people and their city…. When he was stoned to death in a.d. 62, at the instance of the high priest Ananus II, many of the people were gravely shocked; and some years later some ascribed the calamity which overtook the city and its inhabitants to the cessation of James’s prayers on their behalf. [F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Rev. ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), page 239.]

“Another place” (12:17)

Immediately after telling the story of his escape and asking the church to give James the details, Peter goes into hiding. Luke tersely describes it: “He left for another place” (12:17). Any of the other apostles remaining in Jerusalem probably leave the city as well. Thus, a shift in authority within the Jerusalem church occurs, leaving James with the task of keeping the church from looking like a threat to the Jewish authorities.

Where does Peter go? No one knows. The idea that he goes to Rome is not supported by any evidence. Only at the end of his life do we have biblical and extra-biblical evidence linking him with the capital of the Empire. [1 Peter 5:131 Clement 5:4; Acts of Peter 7.] Perhaps Peter goes to Antioch in Syria. Here he will remain until “certain men came from James” and then he has a confrontation with Paul over table fellowship with Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-14). From Paul’s letters, we have circumstantial evidence that Peter also goes to Corinth, and is at least known to this Jewish-Gentile church (1 Corinthians 1:109:5).

As a postscript to this part of the story, Luke says that the next morning there is a great stir among the soldiers about Peter’s whereabouts (12:18). Recriminations probably fly fast and furious about who is responsible for letting him escape. The soldiers’ lives are on the line. Herod has a thorough search made for the missing prisoner. When Peter cannot be found, Herod tortures the guards to see if they have any information and then has them executed (18:19).

The later Code of Justinian shows that a guard who allows a prisoner to escape is subject to the same penalty the escaped prisoner would have suffered. This explains why the jailor at Philippi is about to kill himself when he thinks the prisoners have escaped (16:27). It’s the reason the soldiers want to kill the prisoners, including Paul, who are on the shipwrecked boat. They don’t want the prisoners to escape, because if the prisoners escape, the guards will have to suffer their penalty (27:42).

Herod dies (12:19-23)

Luke now turns to record the shocking death of Herod Agrippa I. After the prison incident, Herod returns to Caesarea (12:19). Apparently there was some problem between him and the cities of Tyre and Sidon. Together with the support (probably through bribery) of Herod’s trusted aide, a man named Blastus, these two cities hope to gain an audience with Herod and sue for peace. Luke says the reason they want to make a pact with Herod is economic: “They depended on the king’s country for their food supply” (12:20).

Tyre and Sidon are the chief cities on the coast of Phoenicia, in the territory adjacent to Herod’s kingdom. They have been centers of commerce and shipping since Old Testament times, but they are dependent on Galilee for their food supply. Josephus gives a parallel account to the event, from which we can fill in some important historical details Luke does not include. [Josephus, Antiquities 19:339-352.] Josephus alludes to a dispute between Herod and Marcus the governor of Syria. He doesn’t mention Tyre and Sidon in connection with the dispute, however. In any case, Luke’s account implies some agreement has been reached between Herod and the coastal cities. Apparently, it is to be ratified publicly at a festival, at which Herod is to speak.

Luke writes that after Herod delivers the speech, his listeners shout, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man” (12:22). Immediately after this flattery, Herod is struck down with an illness because he does “not give praise to God” (12:23). Luke concludes the story of Herod’s ghastly illness by saying “he was eaten by worms and died” (12:23). (Luke doesn’t necessarily mean that Herod is eaten by worms on the spot, nor that he dies immediately.)

In Josephus’ account, the occasion during which the Phoenicians are to be publicly reconciled with Herod is a festival in honor of Caesar at Caesarea. A large number of provincial officials and other important dignitaries are in attendance. Josephus is probably referring to a festival celebrated every five years in honor of the foundation of Caesarea. [Suetonius, Claudius 2.1.] There are two possibilities for the date of the festival. It may be March 5, a.d. 44 — the anniversary of the founding of Caesarea — or on August 1, a.d. 44, the emperor’s birthday.

Josephus describes Herod as donning a silver robe and entering the amphitheater early in the morning on the day of his death. He looks so utterly resplendent that the flattering mobs say he is a god. Josephus observes: “Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery.” [Josephus, Antiquities 19:346.] Immediately after, Herod begins having severe stomach pains. He dies five days later, after being king of Judea for three years. His death is placed in a.d. 44, in the fourth year of the Roman emperor Claudius.

Both Luke and Josephus attribute Herod’s death to God’s judgment on him. The king allows the crowd to hail him as a god, accepting the glory that belongs only to God. Thus, God punishes a vain king. Of course, many other despots and rulers accept — and even encourage — similar accolades. God doesn’t strike them down with worms or a horrible death. So what is special here?

Commentaries on Acts of the Apostles

In times when God manifests his glory through miracles, he does so both to vindicate the church and to judge people opposed to his will. God heals the lame man at the temple gate through Peter and he also strikes Ananias dead after Peter accused him. God here strikes down Herod to make a point, to protect his church and further its work. Herod has become the chief enemy of the church. Working with the Jewish leaders, he is planning to have the apostles killed, and perhaps even ordinary church members martyred. By killing off the king, God effectively puts a stop to the conspiracy against the church. (After Herod’s death, Rome sends Cuspius Fadus to be procurator of Judea.)

God also sends a message to the conspirators that their plot against the church isn’t going to work. By ending the persecution and creating a chilling effect against any future attempt on the believers, God saves the church in Jerusalem for a few more years. The church is greatly encouraged, in that a major persecution is nipped in the bud. Having seen God’s miraculous hand in its affairs since Pentecost, the church can read between the lines of Herod’s death and know that God is involved.

Word increases and spreads (12:24)

Luke juxtaposes the story of the death of Herod with good news about the church. Herod dies, “but the word of God continued to increase and spread” (12:24). Earlier we saw that Luke comments briefly on the progress of the church at regular intervals (6:7; 9:31). Here he does so again. This summary illustrates the pattern of reversals in Luke’s account. The story begins with the future of the Jerusalem church being in grave doubt, with one of its leaders killed and its chief spokesperson awaiting trial and execution. But the tale ends with Peter’s escape, the death of the despot, and the church growing and spreading.

There is also another fundamental change in the book of Acts. Up to now, Luke’s story could be called “The Acts of Peter.” But Peter is about to pass out of Luke’s narrative, except for a brief appearance in chapter 15. From now on, Luke’s account will be about “The Acts of Paul.”

Barnabas and Saul take Mark (12:25)

The closing verse of Acts 12 picks up the story of the trip of Barnabas and Paul to Jerusalem to deliver the relief fund, which is mentioned in 11:30. In neither place does Luke give any details about what happens in Jerusalem. In 12:25, Luke simply notes that Paul and Barnabas return to Antioch after the relief visit. Luke mentions that John Mark accompanies them from Jerusalem to Antioch. His presence will be important to a later disagreement between Paul and Barnabas.

As mentioned earlier, Paul’s trip to Jerusalem probably occurs after Herod dies. His death may be what makes Paul’s trip to Jerusalem safe and feasible. (If Herod imprisoned Peter to please the Jews, he surely would have put Paul in prison, too, because that would have pleased them even more.)

Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012


Acts 13:1-3

Chapter 13: Paul Takes the Gospel to Cyprus and Asia Minor (Acts 12:25-14:28)

Barnabas and Saul take Mark (12:25)

The closing verse of Acts 12 picks up the story of the trip of Barnabas and Paul to Jerusalem to deliver the relief fund, which is mentioned in 11:30. In neither place does Luke give any details about what happens in Jerusalem. In 12:25, Luke simply notes that Paul and Barnabas return to Antioch after the relief visit. Luke mentions that John Mark accompanies them from Jerusalem to Antioch. His presence will be important to a later disagreement between Paul and Barnabas.

As mentioned earlier, Paul’s trip to Jerusalem probably occurs after Herod dies. His death may be what makes Paul’s trip to Jerusalem safe and feasible. (If Herod imprisoned Peter to please the Jews, he surely would have put Paul in prison, too, because that would have pleased them even more.)

The church at Antioch (13:1-2)

We have reached a pivotal point in Luke’s account of the growth of the church and spread of the gospel. Up to now, Jerusalem and Judea have been the center of his story. Peter has been the most prominent person in the narrative. Now, Luke shifts his interest to the church at Antioch. Luke says that in the Antioch church there are both prophets and teachers — two important classes of individuals in the church community.

Paul says that prophesying and teaching are gifts of God, given by him for the proper functioning of the church (Romans 12:4-8). In the outline of church roles Paul describes to the Corinthians, prophets and teachers are mentioned just after apostles (1 Corinthians 12:28). In a later epistle, Paul inserts the role of evangelist between that of prophet and teacher (Ephesians 4:11).

Luke names five prophets and teachers in Antioch: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been raised with Herod) and Saul. Their names show that they come from a wide variety of social and ethnic backgrounds.

Barnabas is mentioned first by Luke, as he is the apostolic delegate and a leading figure in the Jerusalem church (9:27; 11:22-30). We already know him as a Levite from Cyprus who lived in Jerusalem (4:36-37). More than this, we know him as “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith” (11:24).

Simeon has the Latin nickname Niger, or “the Black.” His name is Jewish, so it is unlikely that he is African, though he may have had dark skin. The nickname may distinguish him from other Simons in the church, such as Simon Peter.

Lucius has a Latin name. It’s possible though not certain that he is a Gentile, because he is from Cyrene in North Africa. Perhaps he was part of the Cyrenian group that first preached the gospel of salvation to the Gentiles of Antioch (11:20).

Manaen is the Greek form of the Hebrew Menahem, which means “comforter.” He was “brought up with Herod the tetrarch” (13:1). This is the Herod of the Gospels, whom Jesus once called “that fox” (Luke 13:32). This Herod was responsible for the imprisonment and death of John the Baptist (Mark 6:14-28). If Manaean grew up with him, it is possible that he was taken to the royal court to be a companion of the prince; such boys were then called “foster brothers.”

What a commentary on the mystery and sovereignty of divine grace that, of these two boys who were brought up together, one should attain honor as a Christian leader, while the other should best be remembered for his inglorious behavior in the killing of John the Baptist and in the trial of Jesus! [Bruce, 245.]

Paul is mentioned last by Luke, and he continues to use the Jewish form of his name, Saul. He is last because he is a relative newcomer to Antioch (11:25). But he will soon take center stage in Luke’s account, while the others, with the exception of Barnabas, will no longer play a part in the story.

Holy Spirit sets apart (13:2-3)

After introducing us to the leaders of the Antioch church, Luke tells us that the church is “worshiping the Lord and fasting” (13:2). He doesn’t explain why the disciples are fasting, but some reason is probably behind it. Perhaps the church is thinking of moving its missionary venture beyond the confines of Antioch. Or they have already decided to do so and are wondering who should lead the endeavor. The church may be in a special meeting, asking God to make his will known in the matter. That is exactly what God does. The answer to the mission question comes from the Holy Spirit, who says: “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (13:2).

The importance of the present narrative is that it describes the first piece of planned “overseas mission” carried out by representatives of a particular church…and begun by a deliberate church decision, inspired by the Spirit, rather than somewhat more causally as a result of persecution. [I. Howard Marshall, Acts, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), page 214.]

Luke doesn’t define what this “work” is, but from subsequent events, it’s clear that it has to do with a mission to the Gentiles. Neither does Luke explain how the Holy Spirit makes his will known. Perhaps what happens is that the Spirit moves one of the prophets to name the missionaries. Here we have echoes of the Old Testament prophets bringing God’s message through his prophets. We are reminded of the story of the Judean king Jehoshaphat and his people who were praying and fasting in Jerusalem. They were hoping for God’s intervention against a large army coming against the nation. Then, suddenly, “the Spirit of the Lord came upon” a prophet who gave God’s will. The nation would be saved without having to fight a battle with the enemy (2 Chronicles 20:14).

Now, at Antioch, God is showing his will about another, quite different concern. This new and monumental enterprise of spreading the gospel around the Roman Empire, particularly to Gentiles, will be no mere human initiative. God will guide it through the Holy Spirit. One of Luke’s continuing purposes is to show that the Holy Spirit initiates and guides the activities of the church. This theme — pointed up in 13:2 — is a regular occurrence in the first half of Acts. [Acts 4:318:293910:4416:6.]

Thus, it is through the Spirit that Barnabas and Paul are separated for the task of evangelizing. Then they are “sent on their way by the Holy Spirit” (13:4). While the church “sent them off,” they are really dispatched by the Spirit. Luke is showing that Paul’s work will occur in cooperation and continuity with the church and the other apostles. Paul is not a lone ranger, but a person who respects both the church and the congregation of Israel, even as he preaches a revolutionary message to Gentiles.

We do not find here…a renegade apostle who abandons Israel and delivers a suspect gospel to the Gentiles, but an apostle whose divine commission is confirmed by prophetic election and the charge of the church, whose activities are not only filled with the prophetic spirit but mirror those of Jesus and Peter before him, who remains in constant contact with Jerusalem, and who until the very end of the story tries to convert his fellow Jews. [Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina series, volume 5 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1992), page 225.]

Even after the prophet utters God’s will regarding Barnabas and Paul, the church continues to fast and pray, no doubt for God’s continuing guidance. The leaders then place “their hands on them and sent them off” (13:3). The imposition of hands used on this occasion shows that the church supports these men as doing God’s will. The Antioch church leaders, by the laying on of hands, agree that Barnabas and Paul have the authority to act on behalf of the Christian community at Antioch. The church leaders’ action of imposing hands is taken on behalf of the entire church community at Antioch.

In Acts, the leaders of the church make decisions and take actions that represent its thinking as a whole. [Acts 1:156:25; cf. 14:2715:22.] The idea is that the church as a whole, not just the leaders or a single prophet, is motivated by the Spirit. Both the leadership and the community together are working under the direction of the Spirit to set apart Barnabas and Paul for evangelistic work.


Acts 13:4-14

Work on Cyprus (13:4)

Luke now begins the story of Paul’s first missionary journey. The entire trip, perhaps about three years in length, is described in chapters 13 and 14. Barnabas and Paul leave from Seleucia, the port city about 16 miles (26 kilometers) west of Antioch and four or five miles northeast of the mouth of the Orontes River. Their destination is the island of Cyprus, in the northeastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea. The journey by boat is about 130 miles (210 kilometers), and when the wind is favorable, takes only one day. Cyprus is about 140 miles (225 kilometers) long and 60 miles (96 kilometers) wide. Cyprus was once part of the imperial province of Cilicia. But in 22 B.C. it became a senatorial province, and in Paul’s day it is administered by a proconsul.

Cyprus is a sensible place to begin the church’s outreach program because it is Barnabas’ native land. He is acquainted with its idiosyncrasies, terrain and people. Christian communities probably exist on the island and can serve as bases of operation (11:19).

At Salamis and Paphos (13:5-6)

John Mark accompanies Barnabas and Paul on the journey as their assistant. The fact that he has a family connection with Barnabas and perhaps is familiar with Cyprus, are probably the reasons he is taken along. Luke describes him as the “helper” of Barnabas and Paul. “Helper” translates the Greek word hyperetes, which is used of a synagogue attendant (4:20).

The first of two Cypriot cities Luke mentions is Salamis, the administrative center of eastern Cyprus (13:5). Salamis is a few miles from the modern city of Famagusta. Barnabas and Paul “proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues” of the city (13:5). There is a substantial Jewish population in Salamis, as there are several synagogues for Barnabas and Paul to preach in. Paul continues this pattern of beginning his missionary work in a city by first working within the synagogue. [Acts 13:144614:116:1317:11018:41919:828:17.] That is a logical starting point, for it is a gathering place for people likely to be interested in a message from Jewish preachers based on the Jewish Scriptures, about the Messiah.

Proconsul Sergius Paulus (13:7)

The other city Luke mentions is Paphos, the provincial capital, 90 miles (145 kilometers) southwest of Salamis. At Paphos, the island’s proconsul, Sergius Paulus, requests a meeting with the two missionaries. Presumably, Barnabas and Paul preach in the city for some time before they come to the proconsul’s attention. Luke describes Sergius Paulus as “an intelligent man,” that is, a man of intellectual curiosity and open-mindedness — a person of discernment. As we will see throughout Acts, Luke wants his readers to understand that Roman officials are sympathetic to the gospel message. Here he says of the proconsul that he “wanted to hear the word of God” (13:7). Luke doesn’t say why Sergius Paulus wants to hear the message of these traveling Jews. Perhaps it is more for the purposes of inquiry, than a desire to be converted.

At Paphos the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus asked them to present their message before him. This was probably meant to be an official inquiry into the nature of what the missionaries were proclaiming in the synagogues so that the proconsul might know how to deal with the charges already laid against these wandering Jewish evangelists and head off any further disruptions within the Jewish communities. Like a “command performance,” the invitation could not have been refused. [Longenecker, 419.]

Luke doesn’t say that Sergius Paulus becomes a Christian. However, he implies that a false prophet is unable to turn the proconsul “from the faith” (13:8). Later, when the proconsul sees that Paul causes a sorcerer to become blind, “he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord” (13:12). However, it is not clear whether this means that he becomes a Christian. He may have believed in the miracle, but not necessarily the message about Christ.

Bar-Jesus, the sorcerer (13:8-12)

Whatever Sergius’ Paulus final relationship with the church may be, Luke seems not to be interested in documenting it. (Nor does he give us a single scrap of information as to what happens as a result of Barnabas and Paul preaching in synagogues all across Cyprus.) Luke’s main interest in the proconsul is only as the setting for Paul’s confrontation with a magician who is the proconsul’s court advisor, and who opposes the preaching of the gospel (13:7-8). Luke gives him two names — Bar-Jesus and Elymas the sorcerer. The meaning of “Elymas” is not clear.

Josephus mentions a Jewish magician from Cyprus by the name of Atomos. He is later employed by Felix, the procurator of Judea, to entice the married Drusilla to become his wife. [Josephus, Antiquities 20:7, 142.] Some commentators speculate that Bar-Jesus and Atomos may have been the same person. Bar-Jesus means “Son of Jesus.” But, ironically, he opposes the servants of God. He does this so vehemently and frequently that Paul finally confronts him, probably at the court of the proconsul.

Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, says to Bar-Jesus: “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?” (13:10). The individual who calls himself “Son of Jesus” is now shown to be a “son of the devil.” Paul pronounces a curse on the magician, saying he will be temporarily blinded (3:11). Although Paul brings light to the Gentiles (13:47), he brings blindness to this obstinate man — an external indication of his spiritual condition.

The action so impresses Sergius Paulus that he believes. But this doesn’t necessarily mean he becomes a Christian. Simon the magician also “believed” upon seeing the miracles Stephen performed (8:13). Simon was baptized, but Luke says nothing of Sergius Paulus being baptized. It would be surprising if he became a Christian.

Luke is more interested in the story of Bar-Jesus being confronted and cursed by Paul. He is interested in telling the story not of a conversion, but of the superiority of God’s power over the magic of the pagan world. Luke wants to show how Paul uses his apostolic authority to neutralize the evil spirit influence of Bar-Jesus. Luke wants his readers to understand that the power behind the gospel is superior to that of pagan magic. In the same way, Moses’ miracles in the land of Egypt are more powerful than the magicians’ magic. Paul’s squaring off with Bar-Jesus is also reminiscent of Elijah confronting and defeating the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:19-40).

Luke probably has another parallel in mind, this one with the gospel message preached earlier in Samaria. The first major missionary work in Samaria, this one from Jerusalem, was challenged by Simon the Sorcerer (8:9-24). In the same way, the first outreach from Antioch encounters the false prophet Bar-Jesus, who is also defeated.

Saul also called Paul (13:9)

Luke seems to be purposely juxtaposing names in this section. Bar-Jesus is paired with Elymas. The proconsul’s name “Paulus” reminds us of Paul, though the sharing of the name is probably only a coincidence. It is here that Luke tells us for the first time that Saul is “also called Paul” (13:9). He has referred to him as “Saul” since he introduced him (7:58). But from now on he will call him only “Paul.” Luke introduces Paul’s two names casually, as though he already has both names. “Saul” is more appropriate in the Jewish world. But now he is moving into the wider Gentile and Roman world, and “Paul” is more suitable.

Luke does not mention whether the preaching of Barnabas and Paul results in any converts on Cyprus. He says nothing about the work in general on Cyprus, nor how long the two missionaries remain on the island. Barnabas and Paul travel “through the whole island” of Cyprus (13:6). This takes some time. Presumably, they preach in a number of towns, and teach some converts.

Paul in Perga (13:13)

The missionary group now sails from Cyprus to Perga in Pamphylia, on the southcentral coast of Asia Minor (13:13). Perga is a river port on the Cestrus River about 12 miles (19 kilometers) inland from the seaport of Attalia (14:25). Luke gives no indication that Paul and Barnabas preach the gospel in Perga or the surrounding area — but they do preach there on their way back to Syrian Antioch (14:25).

It is during the trip to Perga that Luke no longer speaks of “Barnabas and Saul.” From now on, Paul is usually in first place, ahead of Barnabas. Before this, Barnabas was usually mentioned first (11:30; 12:25; 13:2). In the account here, Luke speaks of “Paul and his companions,” which literally means “those around Paul.” This expression indicates that Paul is the leader of the group. Luke appears to be signaling to his readers that Paul has become the dominant partner in the missionary team. Luke doesn’t explain why the change occurs. Perhaps it is obvious that the Holy Spirit is working through Paul, as in the case of his confrontation with the magician. Paul’s speaking may be getting results, indicating that God is using him in a special way.

John Mark leaves the evangelizing team at Perga and returns to Jerusalem. His departure will later lead to a disagreement between Barnabas and Paul, and their permanent split (15:2). Luke gives no reason for Mark’s departure. Perhaps John Mark does not like the fact that his uncle, Barnabas, is no longer the leader of the team. Or he may be in disagreement over some policy regarding preaching to the Gentiles, or admitting them into the fellowship. He may even be homesick or afraid of traveling into the hinterland. Whatever the reason for Mark’s departure, Paul doesn’t like it. He calls it desertion (15:38).

Pisidian Antioch (13:14)

Paul and Barnabas leave Perga and travel to Antioch in Pisidia. [In the ancient word, there were several cities named Antioch, just as there were several cities named Alexandria. Rulers who built cities often named those cities after themselves. The Seleucid empire had several rulers named Antiochus.] Luke devotes the rest of chapter 13 to the preaching of the gospel in the city, and much of his account centers around a single sermon in a synagogue.

Surprisingly, Antioch of Pisidia is not in Pisidia, but in Phrygia, near Pisidia. It may be called Pisidian Antioch because the city is adjacent to, or over against Pisidia. [Strabo, Geography12.3.31; 12.6.4; 12.8.14.] It’s about 100 miles (161 kilometers) north of Perga, some 3,600 feet above sea level. To reach Antioch of Pisidia the missionaries have to cross the Taurus mountains — a difficult and dangerous journey. The Pisidian highlands are subject to sudden flooding. Another danger is from brigands, as the Romans have not yet fully suppressed the robber clans that lived in these mountains.

Thus, on first view it seems strange that Paul and Barnabas would struggle to make their way to such an out-of-the-way town in the center of Asia Minor. Luke doesn’t let us in on Paul’s thinking, except that it is his goal to preach the gospel in whatever town he can. Some commentators speculate that Paul or someone in the party became ill while in Perga, perhaps a victim of malaria that plagues the marshy coastal strip of Asia Minor. In Paul’s later letter to the churches in Galatia he says that he came to them because he was ill (Galatians 4:13).

Some commentators think that Paul contracted his “thorn in my flesh” at Perga, the illness for which he beseeches God’s healing on three occasions (2 Corinthians 12:7). However, one must wonder how a deathly ill Paul could survive the rigors of crossing the Taurus mountains. Another view is that Paul has a practical reason for going to Pisidian Antioch: The town sits astride the Via Sebaste, the Roman road from Ephesus going to the Euphrates.


Acts 13:14-26

In the synagogue (13:14-15)

Luke now turns to describe a sermon Paul delivers in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch (13:14). Paul’s practice of presenting the Christian message in the synagogues of Roman cities becomes a regular feature of his itinerary. Because of this, Paul can put into practice the principle that the gospel should be given “first to the Jew” (Romans 1:16). The synagogue plays a major role in Jewish life in the Diaspora. It serves as a meeting place, schoolhouse, library and court. The synagogue houses the Scriptures and other important writings, so it is a center of religious education and learning. And it is the place where Jews came to worship.

For these reasons, the synagogue is a place in which the Christian missionaries can find a receptive audience, primed for the gospel message. This is true because Gentile proselytes and God-fearers attend the synagogue as well as Jews. The synagogue-attending Gentiles serve as a bridge to pagan relatives, acquaintances and business associates.

After the reading (13:15)

During the synagogue service, Paul listens to the reading from the Law and the Prophets. After this is completed, the synagogue “rulers” ask if Paul and Barnabas have any words of encouragement for the assembly. One might wonder why these strangers are allowed to speak. This is not necessarily their first Sabbath at the synagogue. Thus, they may be known to the synagogue rulers or officials. Paul’s dress or some other symbol may identify him as a rabbi and Pharisee.

The “ruler” or leader of the synagogue is usually an elder or leading layman. He takes charge of organizing and arranging the service and is responsible for maintaining the building. Luke mentions two individuals who hold the office of ruler, Crispus (18:8) and Sosthenes (18:17), both in Corinth.

Luke provides us with two vignettes in which he describes parts of a synagogue service. The first is a service in the Nazareth synagogue at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (Luke 4:16-17). The other is the one given here at Pisidian Antioch.

From the details Luke gives and our knowledge of later customs, we can reconstruct the following pattern of a Jewish synagogue service. It begins with the Shema, summarized in the phrase: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Prayers follow the Shema. Then comes two readings, one from the Law and a second from the Prophets. A sermon of explanation and exhortation is drawn from the second reading, as was done by Jesus at the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:17). The address is given by one or more persons judged to be competent by the synagogue rulers. Philo in his description of a Sabbath synagogue service writes, “Some of those who are very learned explain to them [the audience] what is of great importance and use, lessons by which the whole of their lives may be improved.” [Philo, Special Laws 2.62.] After the instruction period is over, the synagogue service closes with a blessing.

Paul’s sermon (13:16-41)

A large part of the rest of this chapter is devoted to Paul’s sermon in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch. It is one of three sermons or speeches Luke records for Paul during his missionary tours (13:16-41; 14:15-17; 17:22-31). This sermon is the only one in a synagogue, and it is by far the longest of the three. Luke gives a rather complete summary so he won’t have to repeat himself every time Paul preaches in a synagogue. In later episodes, Luke simply tells us that Paul goes into the synagogue to preach, without giving any details (14:1; 17:2; 18:4).

At most, Luke offers only a sentence or two, tersely summarizing what Paul says. We can infer that Luke wants his readers to understand that Paul preaches a similar message in synagogue after synagogue. If we compare Paul’s sermon in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch with other speeches given in a Jewish setting, we find they contain the same message and similar elements.

It has often been remarked that this sermon bears a striking resemblance to the speeches of Peter in both outline and content and to a lesser extent to the speech of Stephen (both contain a resume of Israel’s history)….It is now widely accepted that all of the early preaching followed a common pattern that to some extent was based on rabbinic models. These models, no less than the form of preaching based on them, were familiar to Paul, and naturally he adopted this pattern himself. [David J. Williams, Acts,New International Bible Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990), page 229.]

Paul’s exhortation here begins with a survey of Israel’s history. Like Stephen, Paul describes how God dealt with the Jews’ ancestors. However, he begins not with Abraham and the patriarchs, but with God’s saving grace in the Exodus. Paul then moves on to Israel’s history in the Promised Land, but he focuses on the life of King David. The reason for Paul’s emphasis has to do with his being able to proclaim Jesus as the promised Son of David, using proof-texts about the Messiah from the Hebrew Scriptures. He then moves the point of his speech: that through Jesus his listeners have forgiveness of sins. Paul’s speech ends with an appeal not to reject the Savior and a solemn warning about the consequences of unbelief.

Gentiles who worship God (13:16)

Paul begins by addressing not only the Jews, but also “you Gentiles who worship God” (13:16). Besides Jews, there are Gentile proselytes and God-fearers listening to him. Because of their presence, Paul can fulfill his commission to preach the gospel to the Gentiles by preaching in the synagogue!

The Gentiles worshiping in the synagogue are an informed audience, already familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures and knowing the messianic hopes of the Jews — which have become their hope as well. Thus, Paul can present his speech as though he is talking to Jews. These Gentiles already recognize the one true God. There is no need to begin at the more elementary level of identifying God and contrasting him with the false gods of the pagans. Later, when Paul talks before purely pagan audiences, he is forced to take this extra step before moving on to explain that Jesus is Savior.

God chose our fathers (13:17-20)

Paul’s first point is that God chose Israel — “our ancestors” — to show his grace and mercy (13:17). He wants to emphasize God’s redemptive activity among the Jews, which would bring him in line with Jewish interests. Paul’s speech is characteristic of rabbinic models of exhortation. The recitation of Old Testament history is a kind of confessional recognizing God’s mighty and merciful hand in the nation’s history. We can see the same pattern in Stephen’s speech, Matthew’s Gospel and in the book of Hebrews. Paul is beginning on thoroughly familiar and acceptable ground.

But Paul doesn’t begin his sermon about God’s redemptive acts with Abraham and the patriarchs. Even Moses is not singled out for discussion. Paul moves quickly to events in the wilderness, and then talks about the entrance of Israel into the Promised Land. “All this took about 450 years,” Paul says (13:20). This would include the centuries of sojourning in Egypt (Genesis 15:13Acts 7:6), the 40 years wandering in the desert and an additional 10 years conquering the Promised Land (Joshua 14:1-5).

David, king of Israel (13:21-23)

Paul then recounts events from the period of the judges until the time of Samuel. This enables him to describe Saul as the nation’s first king, who was anointed by Samuel. Saul isn’t often mentioned in surveys of Israel’s history, since he was not a very good example of faith or obedience to God. Perhaps Paul’s reference to him reflects his personal interest in a king who bore the same name as he did, and came from the same tribe (Philippians 3:5).

In any case, the reference to Saul’s reign is only an aside. Paul is much more interested in Israel’s next king, David. Here Paul lingers over the details, as David’s example is pivotal to his sermon. Paul quotes God’s testimony of David: “I have found David son of Jesse a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do” (13:22). This seems to be a composite quote from at least two Old Testament Scriptures: 1) “I have found David” (Psalm 89:20) and, 2) “A man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14).

For Paul, David is pivotal as the servant in whom the purpose of God is centered. After picturing David as a man of faith, Paul says: “From this man’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised” (13:23). Paul’s comment about David’s “descendants” may be based on an interpretation of 2 Samuel 7:6-16, which describes a descendant of David in the following words: “I will be his father, and he will be my son” (2 Samuel 7:14). This passage may be considered messianic by first-century Jews. It is similar to Psalm 2:7 (“You are my Son; today I have become your Father”), which is usually considered messianic.

David is a type of the Messiah (“he will do everything I want him to do”) and also the Messiah’s forbearer (“from this man’s descendants”). The promise of 2 Samuel 7:12-16 refers to a continuing line of kings. But Paul, and Peter before him, interprets the verse messianicly, as referring to one king, the Messiah (Jesus). Paul here builds a bridge from the Jewish expectation of a Messiah — David’s Son — to Jesus as the one in whom the hope is fulfilled. Paul’s proclamation to the Jews in Pisidian Antioch is that God has brought forth the Savior-Deliverer from David’s line, and it is Jesus.

John the Baptist’s work (13:24-26)

Paul’s speech skips from David to the work of John the Baptist. John is highly regarded by the Jews. Some even thought he was the Messiah (John 1:19-20). Most consider him a prophet (Matthew 21:26). Paul uses John’s testimony as a further piece of evidence that the promised Messiah is Jesus. Paul quotes John’s statement that the Messiah is one who is “coming after me whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” (13:25). John clearly pointed out that Jesus is the Messiah “who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

Paul has made his case about Jesus from ancient Jewish history and the recent testimony of John. Then he begins to show why all this is vitally important to his listeners. “Fellow children of Abraham and you God-fearing Gentiles,” Paul shouts, “it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent” (13:26).


Acts 13:27-52

Jesus the Savior (13:27-31)

Paul next preaches the gospel message, that Jesus died for our sins and was resurrected (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). He proceeds to explain that the people and rulers of Jerusalem condemned Jesus and thereby “fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath” (13:27).

Here is an irony. Jews (and worshiping Gentiles) are in the synagogue every Sabbath listening to the prophets speak of Jesus. Yet they are unable to recognize that the Scriptures are pointing to him. By rejecting Jesus, they are fulfilling the scriptures that foretell his rejection. The very things the Scriptures say should happen to Jesus, the Jews of Jerusalem carried out (13:29). The people who want to live in accordance with the Scriptures had fulfilled the prophecies by (ironically) rejecting God’s messenger!

The Jewish rulers took steps to ensure that Jesus’ body would not be displayed when the Sabbath began (John 19:31). They tried to make the tomb secure so the disciples couldn’t steal the body (Matthew 27:62-66). This is a further irony. The Jews thought they could prove Jesus to be a fake because they had his body. What they didn’t know was that “God raised him from the dead” (13:30). His disciples, however, knew he had been raised because they saw him after his resurrection (13:31). And the guards became unwitting supporting evidence that the disciples did not steal the body.

God raised up Jesus to be the Messiah even before his death, but God also raised him up after his death. And both “raisings” are predicted in the Scriptures that are read every Sabbath in the synagogues. But people do not have to rely on proof-texts from Scripture to prove that Jesus has been raised from the dead. The resurrection is a verifiable fact because Jesus appeared to his followers over a span of several weeks. “They are now his witnesses to our people” (13:31).

Interestingly, Paul speaks of others as witnesses and not himself. That’s because he is not among the original disciples who saw Jesus over an extended period of time after his resurrection.

Neither did Paul say anything of Jesus’ appearance to him, perhaps because the circumstances were different and he had not followed Jesus as the others had done or seen him die. So instead of including himself among the witnesses, he presented himself as an evangelist. [Ibid., 235.]

“You are my Son” (13:32-37)

Paul quotes three more texts and says that they also speak of “raising up Jesus” (13:33). This raising up is prefigured in Psalm 2:7: “You are my son; today I have become your father” (12:33). This is echoed when God spoke after Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Jesus is then anointed by the Holy Spirit, “raised up” or assigned to be the Messiah.

With a Jewish audience it had first to be established that Jesus was the Messiah. The resurrection was the key to that, hence the emphasis not only of this sermon but of all the early preaching in Acts. Only with their acceptance of his messiahship could the Jews be expected to come to grips with the fact and manner of Jesus’ death. For most, however, his crucifixion remained an insuperable obstacle to accepting him as Messiah. [Ibid., 237.]

Acceptance of Jesus as Savior-Messiah is the critical difference between those who remain Jews and those who become Christian Jews. As Paul says, “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews…but to those whom God has called… Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).

Jesus is also “raised up” in another way. Paul later writes that Jesus “was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4). He was already the Son of God; but after the resurrection, he is declared even more powerfully to be the Son. Thus, Jesus becomes Savior of the world by being “raised up” in resurrection. In his synagogue speech, Paul cites Isaiah 55:3 as his second proof-text: “I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David” (13:34). This, says Paul, refers to “the fact that God raised him [Jesus] from the dead so that he will never be subject to decay” (13:34). Paul is moving from discussing the “raising” of Jesus as a “sending,” to his “raising” in the resurrection of the dead. He does this by claiming that the resurrection itself is the fulfillment of the blessings promised to David.

In his third prooftext, Paul quotes Psalm 16:10: “You will not let your holy one see decay” (13:35). Paul understands this to be a prophecy about someone other than David. After all, David died an ordinary death and his body decayed. But Jesus’ body does not suffer corruption. His tomb is empty and his body has not been found. This is the argument Peter used at Pentecost, even citing the same scripture (2:24-32). Peter is a witness to the fact of the resurrection, something Paul mentioned earlier (13:31).

Of the three prooftexts, the last one from Psalm 16:10 is probably the most compelling. It is recognized as a messianic prophecy. But it contains a strange discussion about the Holy One, the Messiah, seeing decay — that is, dying. Those who accept the verse at face value are led to the conclusion that the Messiah had to die. But he would also be resurrected — not see decay. Jesus fits both qualifications.

Justified from sin (13:38-39)

Paul now comes to the conclusion of his argument. “Therefore, my friends,” he says, “I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” (13:38). The need for this forgiveness is a common thread through Acts. [Acts 2:383:195:3110:4326:18.] Humans are sinners, and on their own, there is nothing they can do to change their condition. God must pronounce a person righteous, and he does so upon one’s acceptance of Jesus as Savior.

This brings us to the concept of “justification,” discussed in the next verse. Paul says: “Through him [Jesus] everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses” (13:39). [Justification is an important term in Paul’s writings, but Luke uses the word only once, in this synagogue speech of Paul.] To be justified is a legal way of expressing the same thing as forgiveness of sin. When a person is justified, he or she is made right with God, or declared to be righteous. But only through Jesus will God justify a person so that he or she is considered righteous.

Can the law of Moses justify people from some sins? If that were so, Jesus’ work would be needed only to make up the difference — to atone for those sins for which observance of the law could not provide forgiveness.

But this would contradict other verses in the New Testament, which demands the all-sufficient work of Christ. The idea that the law of Moses has power to forgive sins is incompatible with Paul’s teaching throughout Romans and Galatians. [Romans 3:21-285:19Galatians 2:163:11.] The book of Hebrews makes the point that the law of Moses provides no real justification for sin (10:1-4, 11).

Acts 13:39 does not say that the law can justify anyone. It might say that you did one certain thing right — you met the legal requirements in respect to a certain incident in your life — but that cannot justify you for everything you did wrong. In the final analysis, the law of Moses cannot provide justification for any sin, period. “Everything” — all sins — must be atoned for by Christ.

Heed the prophets (13:40-41)

At this point, Paul had said enough about the gospel. He has shown that Jesus is the expected Messiah, except he came in an unexpected way. Paul also pressed home the importance of putting one’s faith in Jesus. In conclusion, Paul warns his hearers about the danger of rejecting God’s offer of salvation. He concludes by quoting Habakkuk 1:5: “Look at the nations and watch—and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.”

In its original context, the prophecy of Habakkuk 1:5 referred to the failure of the nation to recognize the Babylonian invasion as the judgment of God for sin. Paul here applies it to any failure on the part of God’s people to recognize Jesus as having been “raised up” to be Messiah and Savior. Paul is trying to pre-empt any challenge to his message. What he is doing is saying: If you are ridiculing and scoffing at what I’m telling you, here is one of your own prophets who predicts that you would scoff. So take the prophecy to heart and accept the good news.

The people invite Paul (13:42-45)

After giving his message in the synagogue, Paul and Barnabas prepare to leave. But many people are interested, and crowd around him. They invite him to talk further about this topic the next time they gather, that is, the following Sabbath (13:42). Paul’s speech arouses intense interest because it gives a unique explanation of the Scriptures, and the people want to hear more of this message. Of course, Luke wants us to remember that the unseen Holy Spirit is also at work in the minds of the listeners. Many Jews and Gentile converts to Judaism who hear Paul engage him and Barnabas in conversation after the synagogue service. They want to discuss the topic of salvation further (13:43). Paul and Barnabas give the crowd further words of exhortation. Luke tells us they encourage the crowd around them “to continue in the grace of God” (13:43).

Word gets around during the week about Paul’s message. Luke says “the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord” (13:44). Luke’s expression “the whole city” does not mean that every person from Pisidian Antioch is gathering in front of the synagogue. He uses exaggeration to make the point that a large crowd gathers to hear this new doctrine. And strange it must have been: a traveling Jewish rabbi describing to Gentiles a Jewish Messiah, who died, but was now resurrected, and is forgiving sins.

But conflict with the synagogue leaders is looming. When they see the large crowd of Gentiles attempting to get into the synagogue to hear Paul, they are upset. Luke says “they were filled with jealousy” (13:45). (The same motive was attributed to the Sanhedrin regarding the preaching of Peter and John in 5:17.) We can imagine some of the thoughts in the minds of the synagogue leaders, and some of the faithful. The strange ideas Paul is preaching are turning out to be more attractive than Judaism. Proselytes and God-fearing Gentiles might leave the synagogue and no longer support it. Or Gentiles might flood the synagogue and take it over for their own purposes — to hear about Jesus rather than Moses.

We turn to the Gentiles (13:46-48)

Paul is probably denied permission to speak during the next synagogue service. At some point, he turns to the unbelieving Jews and says: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles” (13:46). This is a pattern that will be repeated in city after city: Paul begins his missionary work by preaching in the synagogue. After he is rejected by the leaders and the majority of the Jewish worshipers, he then preaches to the Gentiles in that city.

Luke records three statements in which Paul says, “I go to the Gentiles.” The first is here. It is followed by one in Corinth (18:6), and a final one in Rome, which closes the book of Acts (28:28). Paul’s commission includes preaching to the people of Israel, which he will continue to do. In his mind, the gospel is always to go to the Jews first and then to the Gentiles (Romans 1:16). Paul has a special desire to bring the gospel to the Jews in hopes that all Israel will be saved (Romans 9:1-310:1).

But Paul’s specific mission is to the Gentiles. On this occasion, he quotes Isaiah 49:6 in support of his contention that he has been commanded by the Lord to preach to the Gentiles. This scripture speaks of someone being made “a light for the Gentiles” that he “may bring salvation to the ends of the earth” (13:47). The words of Isaiah 49:6 were originally addressed to the Servant of Yahweh, and then they are applied to Jesus (Luke 2:32). Now Paul applies it to the missionaries who are bringing the good news of Jesus, the Servant. Thus, Paul is saying that the mission of Jesus (the Servant) is also the mission of the followers of Jesus. It is the task of the new Israel (the church) as the servant of God to bring the light of the gospel to all peoples.

When the Gentiles listening to Paul hear that God has purposed to give them salvation, “they were glad and honored the word of the Lord” (13:48). As many as “were appointed for eternal life believed” (13:48). This verse suggests that a person cannot simply decide to believe in Christ. There is a matter of divine election involved (John 6:441 Corinthians 2:14). That is not to say that salvation is restricted by God in the sense of limiting it to a few people. God’s purpose is that all people come to know about the truth and find salvation (1 Timothy 2:3). However, a person must respond in faith as the Spirit leads him or her to saving knowledge.

In the words of William Neil:

It is a pictorial way of expressing the conviction of the sovereignty of God — i.e. that salvation is God’s gift, and does not depend on man’s efforts. But it is not in any sense narrowly predestination, as if some are scheduled for salvation and others for damnation; the Bible constantly stresses the element of free choice: we may accept or reject the Word of God. [Neil, 161.]

Jews incite persecution (13:49-52)

Paul and Barnabas meet with great success in the area around Pisidian Antioch. Luke says, “The word of the Lord spread through the whole region” (13:49). The Jewish leaders are angry, and enter a plot with “the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city” (13:50). Luke is probably referring to Gentile women who are adherents of Judaism and their politically connected husbands.

Apparently, the Jews put pressure on the wealthy women who attend the synagogue. They are probably urged to convince their husbands, the city’s leading magistrates, to expel Paul and Barnabas from the area. This is what happens (13:50). Luke doesn’t say what excuse is given; perhaps the accusation is that the local Jewish community believes Paul and Barnabas to be heretics. Since they are not representing Judaism, a legal religion in Rome’s eyes, Paul and Barnabas are teaching a religion that is not legal. As such, they should be expelled since they are disturbing the Roman peace.

Upon being expelled, Paul and Barnabas shake “the dust off their feet” in protest (13:51). This is a gesture that Jesus himself suggested his disciples practice upon encountering persecution (Luke 9:510:11).

It was customary for Jews to shake off the dust of a pagan town from their feet when they returned to their own land, as a symbol of cleansing themselves from the impurity of sinners who did not worship God. For Jews to do this to their fellow Jews was tantamount to regarding the latter as pagan Gentiles. The Christians were demonstrating in a particularly vigorous manner that Jews who rejected the gospel and drove out the missionaries were no longer truly part of Israel but were no better than unbelievers. [Marshall, 231.]

Luke ends his story of gospel preaching in Pisidian Antioch by saying, “The disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (13:52). Paul and Barnabas have established a congregation of believers in Pisidian Antioch. But they are forced to move on, this time to Iconium.

Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012

Acts 14

Chapter 14: Paul Takes the Gospel to Asia Minor, Continued

Missionaries at Iconium (14:1-3)

Iconium (modern Konya) is the next city in which Paul and Barnabas carry on missionary work. The city is on the Sebaste Road about 90 miles (145 kilometers) east-southeast of Pisidian Antioch. Following their usual procedure, the two missionaries enter the Jewish synagogue to preach (14:1). Luke tells us that Paul and Barnabas speak so effectively that large numbers of Jews and Gentiles believe the gospel.

But as usual, the nonbelieving Jews embark on a smear campaign that eventually poisons the minds of the Gentiles “against the brothers” (14:2). This probably entails a sustained campaign to discredit the teaching of Paul and Barnabas, perhaps ridiculing their claim that Jesus is the Messiah. In spite of the persecution, the two missionaries “spent considerable time” in Iconium (14:3). Luke gives few details of their preaching here, and compresses the work of several months into a few sentences.

The missionaries preach the “message of his grace” (14:3). Luke has already used the phrase to describe the gospel, and he will do so again (23:43; 20:24, 32). The idea of “grace” is prominent in Paul’s letters, and Luke’s use of it in his messages may reflect Paul’s emphasis. [Romans 3:246:14-15Galatians 2:21Ephesians 2:8.]

The preaching of Paul and Barnabas is accompanied by “signs and wonders” (14:3). Paul later refers to these miracles in a letter to the churches in the province of Galatia. He appeals to the miracles as evidence that the good news he preaches is approved by God (Galatians 3:5).

Plot against the apostles (14:4-6)

Paul and Barnabas preach effectively in Iconium, and God performs miraculous wonders through them. Nonetheless, the population of the city remains divided about them. “Some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles” (14:4). Because of the support Paul and Barnabas receive, it takes a long time for any serious opposition to develop. But eventually the Jews are able to hatch a plot with some of the townsfolk and political leaders of Iconium. Apparently, the Jews intend to gather a mob, beat up Paul and Barnabas, and stone them to death (14:5).

The missionaries are informed of the plot, perhaps by sympathetic Jews who accept the gospel. The apostles leave the city before the plotters can capture them (14:4).

Verses 4 and 14 contain the only reference in Acts to Paul being an apostle. This may seem odd in view of the fact that Paul often stresses his apostleship. [See the first verse of many of his letters: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus.] Apparently, Luke restricts his use of the term “apostle” as a special “office” to the Twelve. They are the ones who were with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry and who are witnesses of his resurrection (1:21-25; 10:39-42).

Luke probably thinks of Paul and Barnabas as “apostles” only in a general sense, as special emissaries, envoys, or messengers commissioned by the church at Antioch (13:3-4), and in this sense were apostles, or people “sent out.” Paul himself uses the word apostle in a broad sense of a person who is given the responsibility of being a messenger, but who doesn’t hold a special office. He says that Epaphroditus, a co-worker, was, “My brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger [Greek, apostolon]” (Philippians 2:25).

Flee to Lystra (14:6-7)

The Jewish plot against Paul and Barnabas is about to be put into operation. Having learned of it, and to avoid stoning, Paul and Barnabas travel to “the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe” (14:6). Here, they continue to preach the gospel. By mentioning that Lystra and Derbe are in the region of Lycaonia, Luke is implying that Iconium is in a different political realm — apparently part of Phrygia.

Healing a crippled man (14:8-10)

The first city in Lycaonia Barnabas and Paul visit is Lystra, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) south-southwest of Iconium. Luke limits himself to narrating a single event in Lystra, which begins with the healing of a crippled man lame from birth (14:8). Paul is speaking to what is probably a crowd of Gentiles in a public place. (From Luke’s account, we have no indication that Lystra has a synagogue.) Apparently, Paul is drawn to this man, somehow perceiving that he has faith to be healed. Paul interrupts his speech and says to the cripple: “Stand up on your feet!” (14:10). At Paul’s words, the man jumps up and begins to walk.

This story portrays Paul as an authentic messenger of God in the tradition of Peter, who also healed a lame man (3:1-10). Luke uses parallel expressions in the two accounts: “lame from birth,” “looked directly at him,” “jumped up and began to walk.” Both Peter and Paul are shown to be using the same power as did Jesus, who also healed a crippled person (Luke 5:17-26).

This incident, selected by Luke for detailed description from among the “signs and wonders” of the Galatian mission (verse 3), parallels the similar cure by Peter in chapter 3, and doubtless was chosen for this reason. In opposition to those who would challenge Paul’s claim to apostolic authority based on his direct commission from the risen Christ, Luke is concerned to show that his hero shares with the chief apostle the healing power vested in his disciples by the Lord himself. [Neil, 163.]

Gods in human form (14:11-13)

When the beggar jumps up and walks, something unexpected happened. Seeing the healed beggar, the crowd shouts in their own language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” (14:11). Barnabas is called Zeus, and Paul is thought to be Hermes, because he is the main speaker. Hermes is called the messenger of Zeus and the patron of orators.

Barnabas and Paul refuse worship in Lystra

The people of Lystra, as in other towns of Asia Minor, probably use or are acquainted to some degree with three languages. Latin is the official language of the Roman administration. Greek, the lingua franca of the Eastern Roman empire, is understood by most of the Lystrans. The third language in use is the native vernacular — “the Lycaonian language.” Almost certainly, Paul preaches in Greek, which the people understand. However, it’s doubtful that Barnabas and Paul understand Lycaonian. Therefore they don’t know at first what the shouting is all about — even the names of the gods may have been in the local dialect.

The Lystrans think that they are experiencing a divine visitation. The idea of gods coming to earth in human form is familiar in this region because of a legend. The existence of this ancient legend may explain the wildly emotional response of the Lystrans to the healing of the cripple by Paul and Barnabas. According to the legend, Zeus and Hermes came to earth in the neighboring district of Phrygia disguised as human beings. They seek lodging, but no one shows them hospitality and takes them in. Finally, an old peasant couple, Philemon and his wife Baucis, welcome them as house guests, even though it depletes their meager resources. The gods are angry and destroy the whole population for their lack of hospitality, except for the gracious Philemon and Baucis. The couple’s humble cottage is transformed into a temple, of which they are given the charge until their death.

This legend is preserved in a Latin story-poem by Ovid. [Ovid, Metamorphoses, “The Story of Baucis and Philemon,” 620-724. Ovid called them by their Latin names, Jupiter and Mercury.] He tells the ancient legend about half a century before Paul’s first missionary journey. This ancient legend is well known in southern Galatia, and it may explain why Paul and Barnabas become the objects of such a wild celebration. Paul’s healing of the crippled man make the Lystrans think he and Barnabas are the gods Zeus and Hermes once again come down in human form.

If the people of ancient times failed to pay homage to the gods on their previous visit, the Lystrans are determined not to make the same mistake and incur their wrath again. Thus, the priest at the local temple arranges for a sacrifice to honor the presence of Paul and Barnabas. Luke says he “brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them” (14:13).

We are only humans (14:14-15)

Paul makes an impassioned speech in hopes of thwarting the attempt of the Lystrans to worship the missionaries. This speech, in verses 14-17, is an example of how the gospel might be introduced to purely pagan audiences. A more complete example is the speech delivered by Paul to the Athenian Court of the Areopagus (17:22-31). The speech here differs widely in content from those Peter, Paul and others deliver to Jewish and Gentile followers of Judaism. When speaking to Jews and those worshiping with them, Christian speakers can assume their listeners have some knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures, and that they know about the one true God of Israel.

With a purely pagan audience, the speaker has to back up a step to first proclaim the existence of the one true God. In his speech to the Lystrans, Paul begins by explaining that the one God is the Creator of all living things (14:15). Even before this, however, Paul and Barnabas are forced to deny that they are gods. When they understand what the Lystrans think — and that they are going to sacrifice to them — they race into the crowd yelling for them to stop.

“We too are only human, like you,” Paul shouts (14:15). (This assumes that Paul gives the speech, as he is chief speaker.) More literally, the Greek means we are “of the same nature as you.” That is, Paul is saying that he and Barnabas share the human condition with the Lystrans and they have no special qualities about them. The Bible rejects the idea that humans have any spiritual uniqueness worthy of special homage. This is true for even the greatest of God’s servants. James says to Jewish Christians that Elijah was “a human being, even as we are” (5:17). Peter refuses any special reverence from Cornelius, saying, “I am only a man myself” (10:26). Even angels are not to be given special adoration (Revelation 19:10).

Turning from idols (14:15-18)

Paul and Barnabas urge the Lystrans to give up their idolatry — to “turn from these worthless things to the living God” (14:15). The rejection of idolatrous worship practices is a basic test of conversion for Gentiles. Of course, these Gentiles should also accept Jesus Christ as their Savior. But knowing God is the starting point for pagan Gentile conversion. As Paul will later write, the Gentile Thessalonians understand this and turn “to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9).

At Lystra, Paul identifies the true God as the One “who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them” (14:15). Paul and Barnabas are beginning their sermon on an elementary level, starting with nature rather than Scripture. They are saying that nature itself testifies to the existence of a Creator. Paul says the same in his letter to the Romans (1:20). If people understand and accept that God is the Creator of everything, they are also led to worship him.

It is said that there are two books of God. One is his word, the Bible. The second is nature, and the lessons about God that people should draw from it. The existence of the creation can help people understand that God exists and is the creator. But nature does not tell us about a Savior — that is normally communicated through evangelism.

Even further, Paul and Barnabas insist that the works of creation should lead us to understand that God is kind and merciful (14:17). God does not fall into a rage in response to minor matters (as Zeus and Hermes supposedly did when they destroyed people who failed to show them hospitality). Paul says that God’s kindness is shown in his providing rain in due season for crops. The one true God, the missionaries insist, “provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (14:17). God demonstrates his presence through the good things we enjoy. The goodness of God in providing rainfall and bountiful harvests is an Old Testament theme (Genesis 8:21-22). It is also a common theme in pagan religions. The idea is that the gods supply bounteous harvests. Since Paul’s audience is probably composed largely of farmers, they understand the importance of food — and that they are dependent on God for its supply.

As a beginning for the preaching the gospel of salvation, Paul’s speech is a good start. At best, however, this sermon based on natural theology is only a preamble to the gospel. The speech is incomplete, for it doesn’t go on to discuss the death and resurrection of Jesus and its meaning for the listeners. Luke doesn’t say if Paul and Barnabas go on to relate this vital aspect of the gospel. Perhaps their immediate intent is simply to stop the crowd from sacrificing to them. Luke implies that the Lystrans don’t really understand Paul’s message; his words barely achieve the immediate goal of stopping the townspeople from sacrificing (14:18).

Paul is stoned (14:19-20)

Sometime after this tumultuous event, Jews antagonistic to Paul and Barnabas from Pisidian Antioch and Iconium come into Lystra and begin to preach against the missionaries. Eventually, they win the crowd over (14:19). How soon the fickle Lystrans forget! At one time they are calling the missionaries gods. Now they call them charlatans and frauds. No doubt they are disappointed that Barnabas and Paul claim to be nothing more than ordinary human beings. Because of the Lystrans’ disappointment, it is only a small step for the Jews to persuade the townspeople that the missionaries are really hucksters.

The mob singles out Paul for a beating, perhaps because he is the main messenger, and they stone him. After thinking he is dead, they drag his body away and dump it outside the city limits (14:19). But then something astonishing occurs. As the small number of converted Lystrans gathered around Paul’s body, probably to give him a decent burial, he gets up, and then goes “back into the city” (14:20). Luke does not present Paul’s revival as a miraculous restoration to life. Rather, Luke says that Paul’s attackers think that he is dead (14:19) — Luke is implying that Paul is not dead. Paul was beaten into unconsciousness, and then he revives. Nonetheless, the fact that the stoning does not kill him indicates that Paul is under God’s protection.

A few years later Paul writes to these Lystrans who live in the region of Galatia, saying, “Let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (6:17). Some of these marks or scars may be from the beating Paul received at Lystra — something the disciples receiving his letter would remember. Later, when Paul writes the Corinthians, he refers to being stoned and “exposed to death again and again” (2 Corinthians 11:23). It is probably the stoning at Lystra that he has in mind as one of those times during which he is almost killed. Even near the end of his life, Paul recalls the abuse from these Galatian towns. He asks Timothy to remember the “persecutions, sufferings — what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them” (2 Timothy 3:11).

Among those who hear Paul, and even see him stoned and left for dead, may be Eunice and Lois, the mother and grandmother of Timothy (2 Timothy 1:5). Timothy is from Lystra, where his mother Eunice, a Jewess, probably lives as well (16:1-3). Timothy is to become an important worker in Paul’s missionary campaigns. It’s possible that Timothy provides eyewitness testimony for Luke’s account of these events.

In Derbe (14:21)

After Paul revives, he goes back into Lystra, and then he and Barnabas leave the next day for Derbe. Though there is some doubt about its exact location, Derbe is probably about 60 miles (97 kilometers) southeast of Lystra, on the eastern end of the Lycaonian region of Galatia. Luke gives no details about the activities of Barnabas and Paul in Derbe. However, their missionary work must be successful, because their preaching wins “a large number of disciples” (14:21). Among those converts may be Gaius, who becomes a member of Paul’s missionary company (20:4). Apparently the missionaries do not suffer any persecution in Derbe. Luke records none, and 2 Timothy 3:11 implies that there isn’t any.

This is, in a sense, the end of the first missionary journey as far as preaching the gospel to outsiders is concerned, except for a brief notice of it in Perga (14:25).

Disciples encouraged (14:22)

Paul and Barnabas prepare to return to Syrian Antioch (the sponsor church) after finishing their missionary activity. They could return by continuing eastward along the Via Sebaste, and then south through the Cilician Gates, a mountain pass near Tarsus. However, it would be a difficult journey, especially in winter.

What the missionaries do is to backtrack and return to Lystra, Iconium and Pisidian Antioch, in that order. They revisit each city, not to make more converts, but for pastoral purposes. Of course, the threat of harm from mobs and city officials is still possible. But the missionaries keep a low profile and avoid public preaching. Paul and Barnabas are apparently able to gain entry into the cities without incident. Their objective is “strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith” (14:22). Luke repeats what must have impressed him as a central point Barnabas and Paul make to the disciples: “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (14:22).

The missionaries apparently see that this type of encouragement is especially necessary for the Galatians. As events are to prove, these people are easily influenced away from the simple gospel message. Paul will later write his strongest letter to the churches in this area because they are accepting false teaching. “I am astonished,” he writes, “that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Galatians 1:6).

Presumably Paul and Barnabas exhort the disciples not to fall back into either Judaism or paganism. The new converts will be persecuted by relatives and friends for abandoning their ancestral faiths. This will cause them much trouble. They need to be given realistic warnings that the path into the kingdom of God is strewn with such obstacles (2 Timothy 3:12).

Luke mentions the “kingdom of God” several times in Acts. [Acts 1:368:1214:2219:820:2528:2331.] The contexts in which it is discussed are varied: The risen Jesus speaks of it to the disciples; the disciples wonder if Christ is going to restore it to Israel; Philip preaches it; Paul teaches it in the synagogue, to the disciples, and in Rome during his two-year imprisonment. In this context, the reference to gaining entry into the kingdom seems to refer more to the future realm to be established by God (2 Timothy 4:18).

Appoints elders (14:23)

Paul and Barnabas also appoint “elders for them in each church” (14:23). They commit the Galatian elders to the Lord with prayer and fasting. Paul and Barnabas must feel that these individuals have enough spiritual maturity to serve their fellow disciples. These individuals are not brought in from outside, such as from Antioch, to be pastors. These are members of the congregation in which they are given the responsibility of aiding the community of believers. This is the first reference to “elders” outside of the Jerusalem church (11:30). Antioch has only prophets and teachers, though the latter probably serve in the same capacity as elders. Later in Acts, we will hear of elders in the Ephesian church (20:17). [They are also mentioned in 1 Timothy 5:17Titus 1:5James 5:14; and 1 Peter 5:15.]

Every community needs some kind of organization, and the most obvious expedient that lay to Paul’s hand for these largely Gentile congregations would be to follow the pattern of the synagogue, since Jews and Gentiles alike were now incorporated into the “Israel of God.” The elders (or presbyters), therefore, would be chosen from the older members of the community, and charged with the oversight of worship, discipline, administration and instruction — more or less along the lines of the “rulers of the synagogue.” [Neil, 166.]

Luke is describing the organization of new congregations, but on a somewhat dangerous base. Barnabas and Paul are forced to give the oversight of the church to converts who have been in the faith for only a few weeks or months. The missionaries probably have no other choice. A church with poorly trained leaders would be better off than one with no leaders. Paul and Barnabas cannot remain in Galatia as pastors. It’s doubtful they can return anytime soon to instruct these congregations. In fact, there is no evidence they ever return, though Paul does write to the churches in this area.

Commentaries on Acts of the Apostles

Barnabas and Paul’s responsibility is in planting and setting up churches, not in watering or pastoring them. In later years, Paul will instruct people responsible for appointing elders to be careful about their qualifications (1 Timothy 3:1-13Titus 1:5-9).

To Perga and home (14:24-28)

After organizing the churches as well as they could, Paul and Barnabas travel south through Pisidia and then Pamphylia. Luke makes no mention of the gospel being preached in these regions. The two missionaries finally reach the coastal city of Perga, where they had begun. This time Luke says they “preached the word in Perga” (14:25). But Luke gives no details about the length or nature of their preaching, nor its success or failure.

Paul and Barnabas then go a few miles south to the Mediterranean port of Attalia (modern Antalya). There they board a ship that takes them to Syrian Antioch (14:26). The first missionary tour is over. It’s difficult to say how long Paul and Barnabas have been gone, but the time must be measured in years — anywhere between one to four years.

After arriving in Antioch, Paul and Barnabas gather their sponsoring church to give it a full report of their activities. Luke is careful to point out that the two missionaries are loyal members of the church at Antioch. They report back to the body that commissioned the tour. Paul and Barnabas especially point out how God “had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (14:27). Here we see Paul’s use of “door” in a metaphorical sense as an opportunity to have the gospel message heard. Only Paul uses the word in this way. [1 Corinthians 16:92 Corinthians 2:12Colossians 4:3.]

Luke ends the account by saying that Paul and Barnabas “stayed there a long time with the disciples” (14:28). The time notation is indefinite, but perhaps it is up to a year in length.

Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012


Acts 15:1-11

The Council at Jerusalem (Acts 15)

“Certain people came down” (15:1)

While Paul and Barnabas are teaching at Antioch, some people come from Judea and demand that the Gentiles should become practicing Jews before being regarded as real believers. Luke summarizes their claim in a sentence: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved” (15:1).

These hard-line Jewish Christians are confronted by Paul and Barnabas, who get “into sharp dispute and debate with them” (15:2). This is a key moment in the conflict about Gentile conversion. As Luke tells the story, he will also address some doctrinal arguments, but before we get to that, let us see how Paul deals with the question in his letter to the Galatians.

Apparently, the extremists took their legalistic message to other churches, including those in Galatia, which Paul had recently evangelized. The controversy broadened so that Jewish Christians were not even allowed to eat with Gentile believers. At some point Barnabas, and even Peter, seemed to side with the extreme position (Galatians 2:11-13).

At this point, the crisis is threatening the unity of the church. It is also striking a blow at the heart of the gospel of salvation by grace. Paul writes: “This matter arose because some false believers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you” (Galatians 2:4-5).

Peter probably thinks that it is a centrist position: Gentiles can be part of the church, and Jews can continue to be scrupulous about table fellowship if they wish. Doesn’t everyone get what they want? No, says Paul. He cannot accept a church in which Jews and Gentiles have to eat at separate tables, as if the Gentiles are unclean, unacceptable, not even part of the same family.

If the Jewish rigorists have their way — insisting on strict observance of Mosaic rituals — the church will eventually split. At best, two separate churches will form, one Gentile and the other Jewish. Or Gentile Christians will be forced to place their faith in Jewish regulations rather than the work of Christ.

The people from Jerusalem consider themselves to be representatives of James, not renegade teachers. (But James did not authorize them — see 15:24.) Paul refers to them as “certain men [who] came from James” (Galatians 2:12). But they claimed more authority than James had given them (Acts 15:24).

As we shall see, James, Paul and Peter will eventually agree. The rigorous view implies that a Gentile must become a Jew in order to be saved, and the apostles do not want this false message preached in the church.

“Unless you are circumcised” (15:1)

Luke presents the hard-line argument as one that stresses the need for Gentile converts to be circumcised. But he soon shows that the circumcisers want Gentile converts to practice the entire “law of Moses.” Basically, they are teaching that a person cannot be saved unless they become proselytes, converts to Judaism.

The conflict exists because there are people in the church from sharply varying cultural backgrounds. At one end are devout Jerusalem Jews who continue to worship at the Temple. They scrupulously observe all the cultic practices that define the Jewish way of life — all the laws found in the covenant God made with the Jews at Mt. Sinai. Circumcision is a crucial point. From the time of Abraham, circumcision helped define a person’s faith in God and being part of the people of God. [Genesis 17:10-1423-2721:434:15-24Exodus 12:4448Leviticus 12:3Joshua 5:2-8].

But now an increasing number of formerly pagan Gentiles are entering the church. Their religious life had been centered around pagan temples and their culture had been that of the wider Greek and Roman world. They had been idolaters with little interest in the Jewish way of life. And they do not want to undergo the painful circumcision process since it has no cultural meaning for them.

However, Jewish Christians fear that the Gentiles entering the church will change the nature of the church. In Judea, the religious leaders tolerate the Jewish Christians because they keep the law – they are faithful to the covenant of Moses, even if they do happen to believe that Jesus is the Messiah. Their messianic beliefs are merely a harmless superstition, as long as they continue keeping Jewish customs. But now, if Gentiles come into the church without keeping Jewish laws, that will encourage Jewish believers to be less zealous about the laws as well, thereby bringing persecution from the Jewish leaders.

The Jewish Christians are afraid that many Gentiles have grown up in a culture of loose morals. Their easy entrance into the church might weaken the moral standards. Thus, the circumcisers want Gentiles to become like Jews in lifestyle — as evidence of their conversion, if nothing else.

Many Jewish Christians consider themselves to be part of the righteous remnant of Judaism. God has given them salvation, but as their part of the bargain, as evidence that they are part of the covenant, they must keep its laws.

The mental background of the Jew was founded on the fact that he belonged to the chosen people. In effect they believed that not only were the Jews the peculiar possession of God but also that God was the peculiar possession of the Jews. (William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, revised edition, The Daily Study Bible Series, page 112)

And circumcision is one of the proofs of this exclusive relationship with God (Philo, The Migration of Abraham 92). No doubt many Jews of the time, like Philo, believe that circumcision is more than a ritual (Special Laws 1.8-11; 1.304-306). It is a symbol of religious commitment. The rigorists, like other Jews, see the physical act of circumcision as proof of one’s allegiance to God (Josephus, Antiquities 20:38-48).

Zealous Jews believe that a man must be circumcised in order to enter the nation of Israel and to be part of its righteous remnant. A failure to circumcise is regarded as a sign of apostasy (1 Maccabees 1:11-15). Gentiles who are not circumcised and who do not practice the Jewish religious life are considered unclean.

It was the age-old horror of the strict Jew, based on the Law of Moses, of contamination with those who were technically not within the covenant relationship — outwardly signalized by circumcision — and who ate food not permitted by the Law from utensils which had not been ceremonially cleansed. Thus the issue was more than that of admission to membership of the church. It involved also the question whether Jewish Christians ought to mix socially with uncircumcised Gentile Christians, to eat…at the same table, and to share in the same eucharistic celebration. (Neil, 168).

“You cannot be saved” (15:1)

It’s important to look at circumcision and the Law of Moses from the point of view of conservative Christian Jews. As far as they know, the entire Torah is still in force. The