Sunday, March 27, 2016

Acts Part 4 (Chapters 15-20)

The shift of proclaiming the gospel to the gentiles has its first major push back over the issue of circumcision.  A group commonly referred to as the circumcision party, also referred to as Pharisees in chapter 15 verse 5, begins teaching to the gentiles that have embraced Christ through faith that they must be circumcised.  Paul and Barnabas initially argue with them, but it is wisely decided to resolve the dispute by travelling to Jerusalem and holding what becomes known as the Jerusalem Council.  The decision in Jerusalem by a meeting of the elder leaders of authority, including James the brother of Jesus and Peter, is found in verse 9, "...having cleansed their hearts by faith," and verse 11, "...we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will."

The leaders from Jerusalem send out a list of four things to abstain from, and there is a reference to synagogues located in many different ancient cities.  This seems to point to some practical considerations.  We are not bound by the Mosaic covenant, but there are still many things we can and should learn from the old testament to more fully grasp our new covenant.  Paul and Barnabas return with the leaders judgment regarding circumcision.

There is an intense argument that takes place upon their return between Paul and Barnabas about whether to take John Mark with them on a second missionary journey which causes them to part ways with Barnabas and John Mark going to Cyprus, and Paul and Silas going north through Syria and the eastern shore of the Mediterranean into modern day Turkey.  This break causes me mixed feelings because it seems so tragic for such great friends and men of God to be divided by passionate disagreement, but in a strange way, it comforts me to know that they are just humans like us and that God can obviously use flawed humans in such a powerful way.

Anyhoo, Paul sets off with Silas and soon meets a young man named Timothy who becomes like a son to Paul (we see this in the  letters to Timothy from Paul, first and second Timothy, found later in the Bible).  They go off on more missionary journeys revisiting some cities and spreading the gospel to some new locations.  Paul visits and stays in many of the cities he later writes to.  These letters become preserved for our benefit.  We see him in Philippi in Acts 16:12, in Thessalonica in 17:1, and in Galatia, which is an entire region rather than a city, in 16:6.  We see Paul stay in Corinth for over a year and a half in chapter 18.  He visits Ephesus more than once in chapters 18 and 19, and in Acts 20:31, he mentions having spent three years there.  A more exhaustive look at all three of Paul's missionary journeys would no doubt be fruitful, but I am primarily going to simply point out that by the end of the 50's A.D., Paul and others have truly spread the gospel throughout the Roman empire and beyond.  This can be seen not only through the narrative of Acts itself, but by how, in the later chapters, people react in ways that show they are aware of the disciples and Christ and Christians.  Compare the Jewish leaders response to invite Paul to speak in the synagogue in Acts 13:15 to the response Paul gets from Jewish leaders in the Temple in Acts 21:28, "....Men of Israel, help!  This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people(Jews) and the law and this place(Temple)..."

The final push of the gospel's reach "to the ends of the earth" begins with Paul and Barnabas in chapter 13 and is still going on today.  Paul's "final missionary journey" will be with an armed guard and increasingly, his audience will be those with greater and greater authority.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Acts Part 3 (Chapters 10-14)

As mentioned in my previous Acts post, the stage is set by the end of chapter nine for the disciples to move into a full awareness of the scope of God's intentions for the world and how the gospel truly flips everything on its head and begins a new day for humanity.

It starts with God's man praying on a rooftop.  He gets confused and even initially resists God's message to him.  Even as the vision concludes, he is left pondering its meaning.  God then uses external forces to finish making the point He began making on the rooftop.  Visitors arrive and take him away to receive full clarity of what God was intending for him to grasp.  The gospel is to be proclaimed to the gentiles!

As we will see in future chapters, this new development is one of THE primary tensions within the church and becomes a chief tool to bring persecution against the church.  You see the many questions and tensions addressed in many of the  New Testament letters.  The door opening to the gentiles for redemption underlies the circumcision controversy which shows up in the Jerusalem Council in chapter 15.  It also seems, when read closely, to be the primary thing that incited the masses at Paul's arrest in chapter 22.  The development ushers in a whole new wave of issues that had to be sorted through.  The relationship that the Old Covenant under Mosaic law has with the New Covenant under Jesus.  This new development seems to also have drawn a sharper line between those Jews who submit to the New Covenant and those who would not. 

A new center of gentile Christianity emerges in Antioch(present day Syria).  Paul and Barnabas seem tasked with being among its leadership.  A prophet named Agabus announces that there will soon be a famine, and a collection is taken up by the gentile church and taken by Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem for the relief from the coming famine.  Around this same time, there is a new wave of persecution that is launched by Herod that takes the life of James the brother of John and leads to the imprisonment of Peter.  Peter is miraculously rescued from execution by an angel and briefly visits the mother of John Mark to make it known to the Jerusalem church before fleeing from Herod.  Paul and Barnabas then return to Antioch after fulfilling their delivery.  They take the young John Mark with them back to Antioch. 

Chapters 13 and 14 tell of the first missionary journey of Paul around the Mediterranean world to both Jews and gentiles.  Barnabas is Paul's companion for this first trek, and John Mark accompanies them for the initial leg of their trip.  An interesting thing to contrast is how they are welcomed and even given a place to speak in many synagogues.  You will notice this becoming an increasingly rare thing as more and more Jews harden their conviction either for or against the gospel throughout the Roman empire.