by Peter and Vita Toon
Bible Study Starters
Servant Books, 1980
How to use the studies
Introduction to Acts
Study 1: Prelude 1:1–26
Study 2: Pentecost 2:1–47
Study 3: In the name of Jesus 3:1–4:31
Study 4: Witnesses of the resurrection 4:32–5:42
Study 5: Stephen the Martyr 6:1–8:la
Study 6: Dispersion and expansion 8:1b–40
Study 7: Saul of Tarsus 9:1–31
Study 8: Peter and Cornelius 9:32–11:18
Study 9: The church in Antioch 11:19–30
Study 10: Herod Agrippa 12:1–25
HOW TO USE THE STUDIES
Studying the Bible should be exciting, and especially so in a group of believers. The Bible is God’s gift to the church, containing his self-revelation. It is the book of God’s message to people everywhere, in all sorts of conditions. Since it is a book for God’s people (and via them to the world), it follows that the treasures and blessings it contains become available when a group of God’s people read and study it together. With sincere hearts and listening ears and in the spirit of fellowship, a group of believers becomes a microcosm of the whole church as it hears what God has to say from his word.
This study is intended to get a group of Christians started on the task of studying the Bible profitably together, though it can be used for individual study as well. It is intended to facilitate the process wherein God’s people hear God’s word today. It will have served its purpose when members of the group find the living God through the printed page of scripture. Then they will find that both attendance at the Eucharist and daily devotion is enriched.
To function well together, members of the group will want to do some preliminary reading of the book being studied. Further, the group will need a leader to get the early studies under way. He or she could be replaced at the half-way stage. Here are some suggestions for the leader(s) to help the studies run smoothly. Naturally this task will be easier if all members acquaint themselves with these suggestions.
1. Since the Bible yields its truth especially when set in the context of an atmosphere of worship, prayer, and trust, make sure that the group begins and ends its time of study and fellowship with prayer. We need to read the Bible joyfully as believers.
2. Since the Bible was written in languages which sometimes do not translate very well into modern English, always have available several translations/paraphrases (e.g., the Revised Standard Version, Jerusalem Bible, New International Version, New American Bible, Good News Bible, or Living Bible) in order to be aware of the possibilities of meaning and interpretation.
3. Always bear in mind that your first task is to understand what the text means, what God originally said through his servant who wrote the book. We are always faced with the temptation to read into the text what we want to see there. When we know what God originally said to people in a different world from our own, we can ask what he has to say today.
4. To assist in the demanding but exciting task of interpreting the Bible today, the questions at the end of each study will prove helpful. If seen in this light, they will help you understand the connection between the original meaning arrived at by exegesis and the application of that meaning today ( = hermeneutics).
5. Seek to ensure that every member contributes in one way or another. Each Christian has a spiritual gift from the Lord and when encouraged can use this for the good of others. If someone is doing too much talking, persuade that person to give others a chance.
6. Try the following method of approach, involving as many members as possible:
(i) Read the whole biblical passage
(ii) Read each section (as indicated in the notes) from a different translation
(iii) read the notes for that section
(iv) discuss the meaning of the section
(v) use the questions at the end of each section as a means of making the whole passage relevant today
(iv) use the final time of prayer as a means of bringing to God the concerns that have arisen.
INTRODUCTION TO ACTS
Originally the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were one book in two volumes. They were separated when they were made part of the canon (collection) of the New Testament. It is difficult to set a date for the completion of the two volumes and estimates vary from A.D. 62 to 80.
Luke was a friend and companion of Paul, and those sections of Acts where the term “we” is used (16:10–17; 20:5–21:18; 27:1–28:16) probably reflect their travelling together. The Acts of the Apostles is not what we would call today a history of the early church. Certainly it has an historical form and its historical information is accurate, but its real purpose was theological. Had it been “straight history”, surely Luke would have told of the careers of those apostles of whom we hear nothing, and of the churches (e.g. in Galilee, 9:31) of which he supplied no information. In the light of the introductory sentences and the general plan of the book, it may be said that Luke intended to show how the Gospel was rejected by that people for whom it should have become their glory and accepted by many Gentiles even in the pagan city of Rome, the capital of the empire that subjugated the Jews. The Jewish leaders persecuted the churches, but the Roman officials treated the churches with justice.
Luke portrays the expansion of the work as the continuation of the work of Jesus in Palestine. The Holy Spirit who leads the apostles and churches is the Spirit sent by Jesus. A key word is “witness”. The apostles and disciples witness in Jerusalem and Judea, where they are persecuted; in Samaria, among a people despised by the Jews; and then to the Gentile nations. The witness was both in words and deeds. In his summaries of early proclamation of the gospel Luke supplies the words of witness, and by his description of the miracles of the Lord through his servants he supplies the deeds of witness.
Commentaries by E. M. Blaiklock (Tyndale Series, Eerdmans), F. F. Bruce (Eerdmans), R. J. Karris (Doubleday), N. Flanagan (New Testament Reading Guides, Liturgical Press), and in the Wycliffe Bible Commentary (Moody Press). A good Bible atlas is essential.
Study 1: Prelude
Having been raised from death Jesus ministered to his disciples and ascended into heaven in order to send the Holy Spirit as his representative in the church and the world.
1. 1:1–5 Introduction
Theophilus means “lover of God”. He was probably Luke’s patron who helped him to make known his work inside and outside the churches.
The verb “began” (verse 1) indicates that Jesus acts now in the church by the Spirit through believers. Luke expected his readers to look at his gospel (chapter 24) for details of the meetings between the resurrected Jesus and the disciples.
“The kingdom of God” (verse 3) was a major theme of the ministry of Jesus. By the death and resurrection of Jesus the rule of God as a reality was brought nearer.
2. 1:6–11 The ascension of Jesus
The question of verse 6 seems strange in the light of what Jesus had taught (verse 3). Were they still slow of heart (Luke 24:25)? In reply Jesus turned them away from the idea of a nationalist kingdom or the immediate realization of the kingdom.
The account of the ascension, while describing an historical event, is written in a symbolic and poetic form. The cloud was the Shekinah which had descended on the Tabernacle and Temple (Exodus 40:34–38; 2 Chronicles 5:13–14) and on the mountain where Jesus was transfigured (Luke 9:28–36).
The message of the angels was that there was no time for idle speculation, for their mission to the world awaited them and all had to be done before Christ returned in glory.
3. 1:12–14 The apostles in Jerusalem
According to Luke 24:52 they rejoiced as they walked the three quarters of a mile – which as Luke says was the distance an orthodox Jew was allowed to walk on the sabbath. The upper room was the scene of the last supper (Luke 22:12) and probably the home of John Mark (Acts 12:12) who became the companion of the apostle Peter.
The list of the apostles is the same as Luke 6:14–16, except for Judas Iscariot.
The relatives of Jesus may now have become believers (cf. John 7:5; Mark 6:3 and 1 Corinthians 15:7).
4. 1:15–26 A successor for Judas
The number twelve was symbolic, pointing to the twelve tribes of old Israel. Jesus had appointed twelve apostles to be the leaders of the new Israel. Peter emerged as their natural leader. He had been restored to grace (John 21:15–19) after his failure (Luke 22: 54–62).
The fact that Jesus had chosen a traitor in Judas was a problem. Peter answered it by seeing in Ahithophel (2 Samuel 15:31; 17:23) the “type” of the arch-traitor Judas, and by seeing the predictions of Psalms 109:8 and 69:25 fulfilled (verse 20).
The successor of Judas had to be an eyewitness of the resurrected Lord. As there were no obvious differences in the claims of Joseph Barabbas and Matthias, the ancient Israelite custom of drawing lots was used (Joshua 18; 19; Leviticus 16:7–10; 1 Chronicles 24:5 etc.). The Lord was not with them and the Spirit had not yet come in power; thus they used the old method – Proverbs 16:33.
Regrettably we know nothing of the future ministry of Matthias.
5. Questions for discussion
1. In the forty days between his resurrection and ascension, where actually was Jesus when he was not eating with his disciples?
2. What is the connection between the exaltation of Jesus (i.e. his resurrection and ascension) and the descent of the Holy Spirit?
3. What is involved in witnessing (verse 8)?
4. Is the use of lots still a valid means of receiving divine guidance?
Study 2: Pentecost
In God’s saving activity in history there are unique, unrepeatable events, such as the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The coming of the Spirit from the Father and the Son belongs to these events.
1. 2:1–13 The descent of the Spirit
The arrival of God in the human situation cannot be conveyed in plain language and so Luke used symbolism – for “wind” see 1 Kings 19:11; Ezekiel 37:9; John 3:8; for “fire” see Exodus 3:2; Luke 3:16.
Pentecost, meaning “fiftieth”, occurred fifty days after Passover; as this was seven weeks it was also called the Feast of Weeks (Exodus 34:22). It was a harvest festival when the first fruits of the wheat crop were brought before the Lord (Leviticus 23:15–17). As travel was easy at this time of the year, many Jews from various countries came to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast. Part of the attraction was that this feast had come to be kept as an anniversary of the giving of the law at Sinai – the chronology of Exodus 19:1 suggests this kind of time between the deliverance from Egypt and the giving of the law. So as God had descended upon Sinai in thunder, cloud, smoke and fire, so he descended upon the disciples of Jesus:
The disciples knew Aramaic and Greek, but they were enabled to praise the God of salvation in a variety of languages. The curse of Babel (Genesis 11:1–9) was reversed.
2. 2:14–40 Peter’s proclamation
Speaking to Jews who believed that the Hebrew Bible contained God’s sure promises, Peter claimed that in Jesus of Nazareth some of these had been wonderfully fulfilled. The age of the Messiah had arrived; Jesus was the Messiah whom God had exalted and declared to be the true King of Israel. From him the gift of the Spirit had already come to the disciples and would be given to all those who repented of sin, especially the sin of rejecting Jesus, the Messiah.
Peter made specific use of three Old Testament passages.
(i) He quoted Joel 2:28–32 in verses 16–21. This was a proof-text for the outpouring of the Spirit by God because of the work of the Messiah. Joel’s language as quoted in verses 19–20 is best described as apocalyptic, using dramatic pictures to convey the truth of God’s actual dwelling with his people and of his judging the world.
Verse 23a is best explained in terms of the prophecy of suffering in Isaiah 53.
(ii) He quoted Psalm 16:8–11 (verses 25–31). This is used as a proof-text of the resurrection. The psalm is a thanksgiving for being preserved from death. As David did die, and was buried, it must have been a prophecy of the resurrection of the Messiah.
(iii) He quoted Psalm 110:1 (verses 34–35). This had been used by Jesus himself (Luke 20:41–44) and pointed to his exaltation and rule from heaven. “The Lord” is the God of Israel and “my Lord” is the Messiah.
Verse 40: Peter’s call shows that he looked upon the disciples of Jesus as the faithful remnant of Israel, the true Israel (see Joel 2:32). He desired that members of the crowd would join this remnant who followed the Messiah and so escape the judgement of God soon to be revealed (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:10).
3. 2:41–47 The life of the earliest church
It is probable that some of the 3,000 converts went back to their home synagogues and became the first missionaries of Christ.
At this stage, when the Jewish authorities had not begun to persecute the Christians, the believers worshipped in the Temple. Their own distinctive act of worship was the common meal. Probably this was seen as the continuation of the meals which the resurrected Lord had with his disciples (Luke 24). Now he was not physically present, but present by the Spirit (Matthew 18:20).
4. Questions for discussion
1. Was the ability of the disciples to speak in known languages a special gift for a special day, or was it simply the gift of “speaking in other tongues” (1 Corinthians 14:2–19)?
2. What principles appear to govern Peter’s use of the Hebrew Bible?
3. How can we best state the relation of repentance, faith, baptism and the gift of the Spirit today?
4. Is the communal living of the first church (2:44–45) to be taken as an example for all churches, or can it be interpreted in other ways?
Study 3: In The Name Of Jesus
Jesus is exalted in heaven but present with his disciples who are continuing the work he began.
1. 3:1–10 Healing in the name of Jesus
This is one of the wonders and signs referred to in Acts 2:43. The time of prayer was 3 p.m. when the evening sacrifice was offered (cf. Exodus 29:39ff.). The gate was the Nicanor Gate leading from the Court of Gentiles to the Court of Women. By the power of the exalted Lord and Messiah this miracle was performed; in other words it was done in the name of (= the true character and person of) Jesus. Absent in body Jesus was present, as he had promised (John 15 and 16) by the Spirit, the Paraclete, and fulfilling such prophecies as Isaiah 35:6, “the lame will leap like a deer . . .”. The joy and activity of the healed man excited great attention and doubtless brought a new dimension to the act of worship!
2. 3:11–26 Preaching in the name of Jesus
As Peter had preached in the street at Pentecost so now he preached to the crowd within the Temple in Solomon’s Colonnade (or Portico). He emphasized that the healing was done neither by John nor by himself. The cripple had been healed by the exalted Jesus, whom the Jews had crucified. Jesus had given his disciples the power to work in his name.
The picture of Jesus as the Servant (verses 13, 26) recalls Isaiah 52:13, the opening lines of the Song of the Suffering Servant, and Isaiah 42:1, a verse quoted at his baptism (Luke 3:22; Mark 1:11, etc.). Other titles given to him here are “the Holy One” (verse 14), the “Righteous One” (verse 14), the “Author of life” (verse 15) and “the prophet” (verses 22–23, fulfilling the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15–16).
Verses 19–21: Here Peter is giving the house of Israel, the Jews, an opportunity to reverse what they did in rejecting the Messiah. If they now accept him by repenting and become the ambassadors of the new messianic age to the whole world, then the end of the age will come soon and the Lord Jesus will return. So the fullness of the Messiah’s reign will arrive. In fact the Jews as a whole rejected the Messiah and so the end of the age has been delayed.
3. 4:1–22 Defending the name of Jesus
Peter and John were arrested by the Temple police at the instigation of the Sadducees. This influential group within Judaism denied the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. It was composed of priestly families and their friends. On the next day the disciples faced the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of the Jews, before which Jesus had appeared. They remembered the promise of Jesus concerning the help of the Spirit (Luke 21:15) and proclaimed to this august body that Jesus was the Messiah. The messianic Psalm 118:22 was quoted and the claim made that God’s salvation of his people was now mediated only through the Messiah, whom God had raised from the dead.
The speech of the uneducated men impressed their judges who decided not to punish them but rather to place a ban on the public mention of the name of Jesus of Nazareth. In response the disciples answered wisely without compromising their obedience to Jesus, and they were released.
4. 4:23–31 Boldness in the name of Jesus
The Christian community heard the report from Peter and John and then praised God in words from Psalm 2. This was regarded as a messianic psalm. Verse 7 had been spoken to Jesus at his baptism – “You are my Son” – and the theme of opposition was interpreted in terms of Roman and Jewish opposition to Jesus and the present action of the Sanhedrin. The disciples prayed for boldness to proclaim the word concerning God’s Anointed One.
5. Questions for discussion
1. How can we ensure that our words and actions are “in the name of the Lord Jesus”?
2. “Often we claim the special help of the Holy Spirit when we would have served Christ better by being more carefully prepared.” Is this a just assessment of some Christian behaviour?
3. If we are bold for the Saviour today, how can we be so without being aggressive?
4. What is the connection between being filled with the Spirit and boldness?
Study 4: Witnesses Of The Resurrection
Being filled with the Spirit brought not only great joy to the Christian community, it also brought times of sadness and of persecution.
1. 4:32–35 Sharing
This section is similar to 2:43–47 and is introduced here as the setting for two contrasting episodes involving Barnabas and Ananias.
The prayer for boldness (4:29) was realized (verse 33) and, being filled with the Spirit, the believers were able graciously to share their possessions in the name of the Lord Jesus.
2. 4:36–37 Joseph Barnabas
A Cypriot Jew, Barnabas certainly gave an example of “encouragement” and “exhortation”. His land could have been a burial plot or a small farm. See Acts 11:22–26 for more information about his service for Christ.
3. 5:1–11 Ananias and Sapphira
Probably Luke had the example of Achan and his deceit in mind (Joshua 7) when he wrote this. What is emphasized here is that the Christian community is God’s church, God’s building (1 Corinthians 3:9), the Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19). Although members are not perfect people they are not to lie to the church and the Spirit who indwells them. Since the sharing of possessions was voluntary, Ananias’ behaviour was the more reprehensible, for it was deceitful.
By Peter’s rebuke Ananias became intensely aware of his sin and dropped down dead. Certainly this was a judgement from heaven on his deceitfulness, but it may have been an act of mercy as well (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:5).
Sapphira had an opportunity to tell the truth but preferred to continue the deception. Her fate was thereby sealed.
Verse 11: The word “church” (Greek ekklesia) is used here for the first time in this book. Against the Old Testament background, it means “a congregation summoned by God”.
4. 5:12–16 Many miracles
This is a further summary (cf. 2:43–47 and 4:32–35) and reminds the reader of the early days of the ministry of Jesus (see Mark 1:32–34). As healing had come from touching the hem of the robe of Jesus (Mark 5:24b–34) so now it came as the sick were covered by Peter’s shadow. Yet only true believers joined the church, for the story of Ananias and Sapphira was probably well known (verse 13) and the opposition of the Sadducees was obvious (verse 17).
5. 5:17–32 Persecution of the apostles
Peter and John had not promised to keep quiet (4:18–21). They and others preached, were arrested and put in jail. When they disappeared from captivity members of the Sanhedrin doubtless believed that friends amongst the guards had released them. The truth was that God had performed a miracle. They were in the Temple preaching Jesus as the Messiah. However, at the request of the police they went to the meeting of the Sanhedrin where again they proclaimed their faith, witnessing to the resurrected Messiah.
6. 5:33–42 Gamaliel’s advice taken
The Sadducees, who denied the resurrection, would have had the apostles stoned to death. Gamaliel, a Pharisee and a distinguished teacher under whom Paul studied (Acts 22:3), warned against such action. His philosophy was that God is over all and needs no help from man in the fulfillment of his purposes; men are to obey God and leave the outcome to him.
Little is known about Theudas, but Judas of Galilee led a revolt in A.D. 6 insisting that no taxes should be paid to Rome.
Verses 41–42: Again no attention was paid to the command of the Sanhedrin not to proclaim Jesus as Messiah.
7. Questions for discussion
1. Is there a vital connection between being filled with the Spirit 16 and having all things in common?
2. Taking into account our readiness to seek a better reputation than we deserve, are we ever in a position to condemn Ananias?
3. Why were there so many miracles in these early days of the Jerusalem church?
4. On what grounds should Christians reject the ruling of the supreme court of their land?
Study 5: Stephen The Martyr
As the church grew it faced internal administrative problems as well as external persecution. Stephen became the first martyr.
1. 6:1–6 Seven administrators (almoners)
Two types of Jew lived in Jerusalem. One group spoke Aramaic, the language of Palestine, and the other spoke Greek, the language of the Roman empire. The church contained both and trouble arose when some of the Greek-speaking Jews believed their widows were being neglected when provisions provided by the richer members were distributed.
The apostles made the suggestion of a scheme of supervision of the food which involved seven men, and the church accepted it. Interestingly all had Greek names and were judged to be full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. They were set apart by the laying on of hands with prayer.
Some people call these men deacons, but the word is not used of them.
2. 6:7 Progress reported
This is the first of six brief progress reports – see 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; 28:30–31. The conversion of priests was worthy of note, since Sadducees hated Jesus.
3. 6:8–15 Stephen is arrested
The synagogue was probably attended primarily by Jews and their descendants who had been slaves and who had gained their freedom in Cyrene, Alexandra, Cilicia and Asia. Saul of Tarsus may have attended this synagogue. Not able to answer the presentation and arguments of Stephen concerning Jesus as Messiah, his opponents used informers to misrepresent him and his message. Hauled before the Sanhedrin, the look on his face together with his clear eyes told of the light, power and peace in his soul. He looked like an angel.
4. 7:1–53 Stephen’s defense of Christianity
Stephen argued that the Christian way is the only way to God. His historical survey reviewed the history of Israel from the call of Abraham (Genesis 12) to the building of the Temple by Solomon (1 Kings 5–6). The way the Old Testament is used reveals that Stephen not only knew his Bible well but had studied it in the light of the example and teaching of Jesus. The survey may be divided into four parts:
(i) From Abraham to Joseph, verses 2–-16. The call of Abraham, God’s promise to him, circumcision as the sign of the covenant, and the entry of the patriarchs into Egypt are highlighted.
(ii) From Joseph to Moses and the law, verses 17–43. The work of Moses as God’s agent in leading the covenant people out of Egypt, the rejection of their Saviour-God by the people and God’s judgement upon them are highlighted.
(iii) From Moses to Solomon, verses 44–50. God’s gift of the earthly place of worship was misused by the Jews who sought thereby to localize God. But the Lord cannot be confined as Isaiah had said (Isaiah 66:1–2).
(iv) Application, verses 51–53. Stephen placed himself in the tradition of the great prophets of Israel by condemning the people for not obeying the law and not serving and worshipping God in the right way.
5. 7:54–8:la The stoning of Stephen
Stephen made the same claim for Jesus that Jesus made for himself (cf. Mark 14:62). To understand this use of the term “Son of man”, Daniel 7:13–14 must be read. Stephen combined Daniel 7:13–14 with Psalm 110:1, but instead of seeing Jesus, the exalted Messiah, seated he saw him standing. Perhaps the thought is that Jesus is witnessing before God (for which he had to stand) as the advocate of Stephen. Or it may be that he is ready to return to earth in glory and power.
Like his Lord, Stephen prayed for his persecutors (Luke 23:34). Perhaps we can think that his prayer was answered with respect to Saul of Tarsus.
6. Questions for discussion
1. Why should it be necessary to be filled with the Spirit and have wisdom in order to be administrators in the church?
2. What are the major points that Stephen made in his historical survey, and why did he make them?
3. Does Stephen’s claim in verses 48–50 mean that the building of the Temple was a mistake? If not, why not?
4. What can we learn of true discipleship from the attitude and example of Stephen?
Study 6: Dispersion And Expansion
Cruel persecution of the church by the Jews began but the dispersion of Christians led to more evangelization. A disaster became a blessing.
1. 8:lb–3 Saul persecutes the church
It appears that the Greek-speaking Jewish Christians were particularly persecuted and forced to disperse. The “Hebrew” apostles remained at the Jerusalem church but the dispersion did lead to the beginning of the fulfillment of Acts 1:8 – “into all Judea and Samaria . . .”.
2. 8:4–8 Philip preaches in Samaria
Philip, one of the seven administrators (6:1–6) and a Greek-speaking Jew, went into Samaria, probably to the city of Gitta. Samaritans were regarded with scorn by the orthodox Jews for they were a racially-mixed people who claimed like the Jews to be the children of Abraham. They had a temple on Mount Gerizim and they looked for the coming of the Messiah. Philip presented Jesus of Nazareth as their Messiah.
3. 8:9–13 Simon, the magician, is converted
Simon, usually called Simon Magus (i.e. Simon the magician), was a name long remembered in the church. He was portrayed as the father of heresies – e.g. of Gnosticism. Certainly he was a rational man, for he recognized that Philip was in touch with and had access to a power greater than his own; so he “believed” and received baptism. If the Simon of Christian legend is in fact the Simon here described, then he was never truly converted to Christ but went through baptism for his own selfish reasons.
4. 8:14–24 The visit of Peter and John
It was the policy of the apostles in these early days to exercise general control over expansion (see 11:22).
Verses 15-17 have been much discussed. In Acts 2:38–41 those who repented and believed also received the Spirit immediately. Here the gift of the Spirit came some days after repentance and faith in connection with the ministry of two apostles. (This incident should be compared with that recorded in Acts 19:1–7.)
Perhaps the best explanation is that the despised Samaritans needed special confirmation that they were truly members of the new covenant and the church of God. So God ordered events in such a way that not only did the apostles come to welcome them into the church, but the Holy Spirit came upon them in a way similar to that described in Acts 2. Thus the first Samaritan believers had special assurance of divine acceptance.
Simon wanted power to reproduce what he took to be the impressive performance of the apostles when they laid hands upon the believers. Peter’s rebuke brought from him what appears to have been a genuine prayer.
5. 8:25–40 Philip goes south
After having returned to Jerusalem with Peter and John, Philip was led by God to go south, to the area we refer to today as the Gaza Strip. He met the treasurer of the kingdom of Ethiopia, or Nubia, which stretched from the first cataract of the Nile at Aswan down to Khartoum. Philip explained the identity of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, which the treasurer was reading, and this led to his conversion to Jesus Christ. The place of baptism is usually identified as the Wadi el Hesi, which is north-east of the town of Gaza.
Philip is next heard of in 21:8, twenty years later.
6. Questions for discussion
1. What do we learn from this chapter as to how the providence of God functions for the good of the church?
2. Why was the gift of the Spirit delayed for the Samaritan believers?
3. What is the best way to understand what the “angel of the Lord” (verse 26) and “the Spirit of the Lord” (verse 39) actually did to Philip?
4. What was the purpose of baptism in the case of the Ethiopian, when there was no church to witness it?
Study 7: Saul Of Tarsus
Saul, whose Roman name is Paul, was the leading persecutor of the Christians. By the intervention of the risen Christ he became the chief apostle to the Gentiles.
1. 9:1–9 Saul sees Christ
This continues the theme of 8:3. Saul set off to Damascus in Syria to arrest Jewish Christians who had gone as refugees from Jerusalem and Judea. The high priest was president of the Sanhedrin which had powers extending to Jewish communities outside Judea. Near Damascus, at about midday, Saul had a tremendous vision of the exalted, glorified Christ who spoke to him in his own language (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:5–8). This experience changed the whole course of his life, and rendered him temporarily blind.
The statement in verse 7 that those with Saul heard the voice but could not see anyone has been thought to conflict with his own statement in Acts 22:9 that they saw the light but did not hear the voice. If the voice in verse 7 is that of Paul there is no problem, for his companions could not see the one to whom he called, the vision being given to Saul alone.
2. 9:10–19a Ananias is sent to Saul
How the gospel entered Damascus with its large Jewish population is not known, but there was a church there to which some Christians of Jerusalem had fled. Ananias was more than surprised to be told to minister to Saul whose reputation was well known. It was an act of ministry which he did not cherish, but the Lord gave him the knowledge that Saul was to be the apostle to the Gentiles.
The street called “Straight” (now Darb el Mustaqim) is still there.
Verse 17 is expanded in Acts 22:14–16 and 26:16–18. Through the words which the Lord gave to Ananias and through the direct communication of the Lord himself, Saul received his commission as apostle to the Gentiles.
3. 9:19b–22 Saul preaches in Damascus
Saul now enjoyed Christian fellowship for the first time in his life. Those whom he had hated were now his brothers and sisters. He turned his skill as a rabbi into preaching for Christ in the synagogue. He proclaimed Jesus as the “Son of God”, a title which is used only here in the whole book of Acts. From Psalm 2:7 we know this title is the equivalent of Messiah, “the anointed King” who represents Israel. In the light of Matthew 11:25–27 the title also reflects the unique and intimate relationship of Jesus with the Father and his unique knowledge of him. See also Paul’s use of the term in Romans 1:3; 5:10; 8:3, 29, 32; 1 Corinthians 1:9; 2 Corinthians 1:19; Galatians 1:16; 2:20; 4:4, 6, etc.
4. 9:23–25 Saul escapes from Damascus
That which Saul had earlier intended for others is now aimed at him. Saul’s own account of what happened is given in 2 Corinthians 11:32–33. The “many days” of verse 23 seem to be the “three years” of Galatians 1:18.
5. 9:26–30 Saul in Jerusalem and Tarsus
Only Barnabas was wholly convinced that the conversion of Saul was genuine, and by his assurances the apostles accepted Saul.
Verses 28–30 should be compared with Galatians 1:18–24. It is not easy to reconcile these two accounts, since we do not have all the details. The seaport of Caesarea was the Roman headquarters for the province of Judea, and from there it was easy to take a ship to Tarsus, the chief city of Cilicia.
6. 9:31 The church enjoys peace
Luke used the singular word “church” of the Christian congregations in these areas, whereas Saul spoke of the ‘churches’ (Galatians 1:22). The conversion of Saul not only brought the apostle to the Gentiles into the church; it also caused persecution to cease. So Luke told the conversion of Saul three times in the Acts: here, in 22:1–21; and in 26:2–29.
7. Questions for discussion
1. How do we explain the claim of Paul in Galatians 1:1 and 1:11–17 that he received his commission directly from Christ, in the light of the ministry of Ananias?
2. What is presupposed in the question, “Why do you persecute me?” when Saul had persecuted Christians rather than Jesus himself?
3. Should we regard Saul’s conversion experience as a model for others, or should we view it as a special, even unique type of conversion?
4. What is the significance of Luke’s use of “church” in verse 31?
Study 8: Peter And Cornelius
Luke regarded the encounter between Peter and Cornelius and its consequences as of great importance in the history of Christianity, and so gave it much space.
1. 9:32–43 Peter in Lydda and Joppa
The last mention of Peter was in 8:20. Lydda (Lod in the Old Testament) was on the Mediterranean coast. Perhaps this church of saints (those who were called to serve the holy Lord and who were being made holy by the Spirit) had been formed by refugees from Jerusalem. News of the cure of Aeneas spread rapidly and the number of believers increased in the coastal plain of Sharon.
Joppa (modern Jaffa) is eleven miles north-west of Lydda. Tabitha means “Gazelle” which in Greek is Dorcas. The raising of Tabitha is to be compared with the raising of the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:41). Again there were many converts in this area.
2. 10:1–8 The vision of Cornelius
Cornelius was a very common Roman name. This Cornelius was in charge of one hundred soldiers who belonged to a cohort of six hundred which was itself the tenth part of a legion. Looked at from a Jewish standpoint, Cornelius was a “Godfearer” in that while he believed in the God of Israel he had not been fully received into the Jewish community. By a vision God spoke to him and thereby set in motion the events which led up to the conversion to Christ of the first Gentile.
3. 10:9–16 The vision of Peter
A Gentile God-fearer had no scruples about entering a Jewish home, but a Jew had scruples about entering a Gentile home and eating food there. Peter’s vision had to do with the abolition of Jewish food laws which categorized certain types of flesh as ritually unclean – see Leviticus 11; Ezekiel 4:14. Perhaps Peter recalled the teaching of Jesus as recorded in Mark 7:14–23.
4. 10:17–23a The servants of Cornelius arrive
Again God took the initiative by sending Peter down from the rooftop by the external stone staircase. He also led Peter to see the implications of the vision, but its implementation had to wait until the following day.
5. 10:23b–33 Peter visits Cornelius
Peter took six witnesses with him (11:12) on the journey of thirty miles. Cornelius treated him as if he were the emperor of Rome, so great was his expectation. Peter explained how God had changed his mind towards Gentiles and Cornelius explained why he had sent for Peter.
6. 10:34–43 Peter preaches to Gentiles
The message did not differ from that given to Jews – see 2:14–40; 3:12–26; 4:8–12; 5:29–32 – for Cornelius knew the Scriptures and had heard of Jesus.
7. 10:44–48 The descent of the Holy Spirit upon Gentiles
This should be compared not with the response to Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38–40) but with what happened before Peter began to preach (Acts 2:1–4). Since God had so clearly accepted these Gentiles by giving to them the Spirit, Peter had to baptize them.
8. 11:1–18 Peter in Jerusalem
The Aramaic-speaking Christians were appalled by Peter’s behaviour in breaking standard Jewish customs. His only defense was to tell what happened and this led to the church in Jerusalem accepting and approving the mission to the Gentiles.
9. Questions for discussion
1. “Because of the presence of the apostles it is natural that there were more miracles in the apostolic period than in later periods of the history of the church.” Do you agree?
2. If God still gives visions to believers, for what purposes are they given?
3. What is the full significance of the gift of the Spirit to Gentiles?
4. When should we break the general conventions of our culture in order to serve Christ?
Study 9: The Church In Antioch
These verses resume the story which ceased at 8:4, the dispersion of Greek-speaking Jewish Christians following the martyrdom of Stephen.
1. 11:19–26 A Gentile church
Antioch was the capital of Syria under the Macedonian Greek dynasty, being founded around 300 B.C. by Seleucus I Nicator and named after his father Antiochus. It was situated on the south side of the river Orontes about fifteen miles from the sea. Its seaport of Seleucia Pieria was one of the great harbours of the Mediterranean world. It became a large and great city and from 64 B.C. was the capital of the Roman province of Syria. A large population of Jews lived there.
Following the evangelization of Jews in the city, some Christian Jews took the daring and novel step of preaching to Gentiles. The content of their message was that Jesus is the Lord (kyrios). Because Gentiles did not have knowledge of the Jewish Bible, to present Jesus as the Messiah did not make sense. So he was proclaimed as the King of kings and the Saviour of the world. The Holy Spirit accompanied this proclamation, giving success – or in Luke’s picture, the hand of God rested in blessing on the enterprise.
Just as the church of Jerusalem had sent Peter and John to Samaria to investigate events and people there, so now Barnabas, a Cypriot Jew (Acts 4:36), was sent to Antioch. This was a wise choice, for his natural sympathies were wider than those of the Aramaic-speaking Christians of Jerusalem. And, true to his name, he proved to be a real son of encouragement: evangelization increased, and resulted in many more converts.
The name “Christians” arose because the believers spoke much of Christos (Christ). Although Christos means “the anointed one of God” and translates Messiah, to the pagans of Antioch it was just another human name, from which they created a further name – Christian.
2. 11:27–30 The visit of prophets
Paul referred to prophets on several occasions – see 1 Corinthians 12:28; 14:29; Ephesians 2:20; 3:5; 4:11 – and to their activity – see Romans 12:6; 1 Corinthians 13:9; 14:1, 24, 31, 39. See also Acts 13:1; 19:6; 21:9–11. Perhaps we should distinguish between being a prophet and having the gift of prophecy, but in both cases under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit a man or woman spoke that which God had laid upon his or her heart. The language was the everyday language of the hearers, not some strange tongue or foreign language.
The Christians of Antioch gave freely, as Paul later asked the Corinthians to do (1 Corinthians 16:1–3). They were indebted to the Jerusalem church for the gospel, and the ministry of Barnabas and Saul strengthened the ties between Gentile and Jewish Christians.
The visit of Barnabas and Saul to Jerusalem is probably that described by Paul in Galatians 2:1–10.
3. Questions for discussion
1. Do we need to distinguish between being a prophet and having the gift of prophecy?
2. Why does God seem to have restored the gift of prophecy in recent times?
3. To what extent should the preacher adapt his message in order to speak meaningfully to different kinds of people?
4. Do rich churches of the west take sufficiently seriously the needs of the deprived and destitute churches of the world?
Study 10: Herod Agrippa
Further persecution does not prevent the progress of the gospel, for God works to ensure its success in the world.
1. 12:1–3a Persecution by the king
Herod Agrippa I was the grandson of Herod the Great who had rebuilt the Temple. He was educated in Rome with Drusus, son of the emperor Tiberius, and with Claudius who became emperor. He ruled as a Roman puppet king over southern Syria, Galilee, Perea and Judea, but he also enjoyed the favour of his Jewish population, for he himself was half-Jew and he did his best to please the Jews. He died at the age of 54 leaving four children, of whom three – Agrippa II, Bernice and Drusilla – are mentioned in the Acts (24:24; 25:13).
James was the first apostle to become a martyr and so he truly drank from Christ’s cup and shared his baptism (Mark 10:39). John, his brother, also suffered (Revelation 1:9).
Perhaps Peter was arrested because apart from his Christianity he was known to have fellowship with Gentiles.
2. 12:3b–19 Peter escapes from prison
The seven days of unleavened bread began when Peter was arrested. The intention was to keep him in prison, well guarded, until Passover was ended. (For the Passover, see Exodus 12; cf. Luke 22:1 for the general use of the term.) Possibly his prison was the fortress of Antonia (cf. Acts 21:31–35). Presumably it was during his last night, following the fervent prayer of the whole church (cf. James 5:16), that he was miraculously released. Why James became a martyr and Peter escaped through divine intervention is not known to us. We believe that God had his reasons.
Verse 12: The house of Mary was an important meeting place for the Jerusalem church. It is probable that her son, John Mark, witnessed the arrest of Jesus (Mark 14:51), became the companion of Peter, served him in Rome, wrote the gospel of Mark and possibly founded the church in Alexandria, North Africa.
Verse 17: James came to prominence as a leader of the church in Jerusalem. When Barnabas and Paul visited Jerusalem the “pillars” were James, Peter and John (in that order) – see Galatians 2:1, 9. For further information on James, see Acts 15:13–21 and 21:18–25. He was stoned to death in A.D. 61 on the orders of the high priest.
3. 12:20–23 Herod Agrippa dies
Tyre and Sidon were Phoenician coastal towns in southern Syria and depended on Galilee for their food supply (as in Old Testament times – see 1 Kings 5:9–11). The leaders of these towns had offended Agrippa and desired to get back into his favour. The specific day (verse 21) appears to have been the day of a festival in honour of the emperor’s birthday which Agrippa kept at Caesarea. Josephus the Jewish historian describes the end of Agrippa as involving violent stomach pains for five days before death in A.D. 44.
The phrase “eaten by worms” appears to have been an expression reserved by ancient historians to describe the end of those people whom they did not favour, although here it could refer to a sudden illness.
4. 12:24 Progress
This summary functions as those at 6:7 and 9:31. The persecuted ones died to be with the Lord but the church continued, as Christ said (Matthew 16:18). Cf. the parable of the sower and the seed (Mark 4:3–20).
5. 12:25 Barnabas, Saul and Mark
Probably Barnabas and Saul stayed in the home of Mark’s mother Mary. Mark was a nephew or cousin of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10).
The scene has now been set by Luke for the description of the great outreach, led by Paul, of the church to the Gentile world and to those Jews who lived in Gentile cities. So read on!
6. Questions for discussion
1. In the light of James’ death and Peter’s survival, what do we mean when we speak of the inscrutable wisdom of God?
2. Can we set limits to what God will do in response to the effectual prayers of his faithful people?
3. In what circumstances can we claim that some deaths are divine judgement when it is recalled that all death is the result of sin?
4. What has made the greatest impression upon you as you have studied Acts 1–12?
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