Sunday, June 30
Acts 9:20-30: PaulÕs early preaching in the Damascus synagogue is directed to the true identity of Jesus, "that He is the Son of God." This title of Jesus is used in only one other place in the Acts of the Apostles, again on the lips of Paul (13:23). The verb used in verse 21 to speak of the "havoc" (porthein) caused by Paul in Jerusalem also appears in PaulÕs own description in Galatians 1:13,23. It is between verses 22 and 23 that we should place PaulÕs trip to Arabia (Galatians 1:17), which Luke omits from his narrative. (Comparison with PaulÕs own letters demonstrates that Luke streamlines his story in several places, which I will endeavor to indicate.) Since the visit to Jerusalem in this chapter is clearly identical with that in Galatians 1:18, three years have elapsed since PaulÕs conversion. Inasmuch as Aretas IV (2 Corinthian 11:32) did not come to the throne until 37, a ready calculation would date PaulÕs conversion to 33 or 34 at the earliest. Planning to kill Paul, the local Jews had arranged for him to be arrested by the civil authorities. Aretas IV was glad to be part of this plot, because he was attempting to curry favor with Herod Agrippa at this time. PaulÕs nocturnal ride down the side of the city wall in a basket was the first of his many close-calls for the sake of Christ. Arriving at Jerusalem, he found that the Christians there did not trust him, remembering the angry young persecutor who had left for Damascus some three years earlier. It is at this point that Luke reintroduces the helpful Barnabas into the story. Paul must soon flee Jerusalem, however, threatened by the same people responsible for the murder of Stephen. Via the port at Caesarea, Paul returns to his hometown, Tarsus in Cilicia, where he will remain until Barnabas searches him out in 44 or 45 (cf. 11:25). Meanwhile Luke turns our attention, once again, to the ministry of Peter.
Monday, July 1
Acts 9:31-43: Given the grievous animosity that had long estranged mutually the Jews and the Samaritans, it is no small grace to read in verse 31 that "the Church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace." This initial reconciliation now accomplished, Luke will direct our attention more emphatically to the conversion of the Gentiles, initiated by PhilipÕs baptism of the Ethiopian and to be extended by Peter over the next two chapters. Prior to PeterÕs baptism of Cornelius, however, Luke describes the apostleÕs new travels outside of Jerusalem, to which he had returned in 8:25. Two more miracles of Peter are narrated in this section, the healing of Aeneas and the raising of Tabitha. The first occurred at Lydda, some 28 miles northwest of Jerusalem, and the cured paralytic was Aeneas, named for the fabled leader of those Trojans who laid the ancient foundations of the Roman Empire. Since VirgilÕs account of that adventure, the Aeneid, published in the previous century under Augustus, enjoyed a quasi-official status in Roman culture, it is unthinkable that the cultured and cosmopolitan Luke would have been ignorant of it or have missed the spiritual significance of PeterÕs healing a man bearing that name. Joppa, where Tabitha was raised from the dead, was another twelve miles further northwest, on the Mediterranean coast and thirty miles south of Caesarea Maritima ("Caesarea on the Sea," as distinct from Caesarea Philippi).
Tuesday, July 2
Acts 10:1-16: Beginning with this chapter we will observe that LukeÕs story is dominated by two considerations: (1) the growing apostolic awareness that the Gospel is to be directed to all peoples and cultures; and (2) the mounting tensions, resultant from this expansion of ministry, with respect to the ChurchÕs already strained relationship to Judaism. We will see the first of these considerations addressed in Chapter 10, and the second in Chapter 11. In Chapter 10 the overt directing of the Gospel to non-Jews results from two divine revelations and the manifest outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius and his friends. Each vision is narrated twice, PeterÕs in 10:9-16 and 11:7-9, and CorneliusÕs in 10:3-8 and 10:30-33. TodayÕs reading contains one account of each of these visions. The "Italian Regiment," to which Cornelius was attached, was well known to antiquity. It consisted of auxiliary archers assigned to the Province of Syria at this time. Quartered at Caesarea, they were equally distant from Jerusalem and Antioch. Cornelius, as a "fearer of God" (phoboumenos ton Theon), worshipped IsraelÕs God according to patterns of piety (synagogue attendance, prayer, fasting, almsgiving) that did not oblige him, by circumcision, to become a Jew. The earliest Gentiles converts to the Christian Church will come largely from these "fearers of God" (10:22,35; 13:16,26,43,50; 16:14; 17:4,17; 18:7). The actual days of the visions of Cornelius and Peter are not difficult to determine. Since Mondays and Thursdays were weekly Jewish fast days, the vision of Cornelius must have occurred on a Monday (10:3,30); otherwise Peter would have been violating the Sabbath by the journey he made in verses 23-24. This means that PeterÕs vision took place on a Tuesday (verse 9). We observe also that Peter and Cornelius are both praying at prescribed times, noon (verse 6; cf. also the conversion of St. Paul in 22:6) and the hour of the evening sacrifice (verses 3 and 30; cf. 3:1). The Greek word for PeterÕs "trance" in verse 10 is ekstasis.
Wednesday, July 3
Acts 10:17-33: PeterÕs vision, the burden of which asserted that Jewish dietary laws are no longer binding, prepares him to meet the delegation sent by Cornelius. All of this activity is guided by the Holy Spirit (verse 19). It being already early afternoon, the trip to Caesarea is postponed until the next morning, Wednesday (verse 23). Peter takes six companions (cf. 11:12), perhaps suspecting that he may need witnesses later on for what might transpire at Caesarea. Apparently going slowly, the group does not arrive until the next day, Thursday (verses 24 and 30), which is also a Jewish fast day. The centurion welcomes Peter as a heavenly messenger (verse 25; cf. 14:15). PeterÕs message to the assembled friends shows that he has understood the vision as pertinent to the emerging question about the relationship of Christians to the Jewish Law (verse 28), an interpretation on which he will later insist in 11:9 and 15:9. These converted Gentiles, that is to say, will come to justification in Christ without the works of the Mosaic Law; this truth will be a foundational principle of the entire evangelism of the Church and a major message of the entire New Testament corpus, especially the epistles of St. Paul. Then, this time from the lips of Cornelius, Luke tells us the story of the vision once again. This literary device, whereby a story is repeated by a character within the story, permits the reader to savor and enjoy the event a second time, as though a single telling of it would not do it justice. Some of the more delicious stories of Holy Scripture are treated with this early form of "instant replay," an excellent example being Genesis 24. In that history of AbrahamÕs servant encountering Rebecca, there is a first account given by the narrator and second by the servant himself. As here in Acts 10, that story deals with the theme of personal divine guidance.
Thursday, July 4
Acts 10:34-48: PeterÕs sermon covers the established time frame of the apostolic witness, "all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John to that day, when He was taken up from us" (1:22). This was the time frame for which the apostles were eye-witnesses (10:39-41). Some years later the Gospel of Mark, which all early Christians believed to embody the preaching of Peter, would cover that exact time frame. The apostle Paul, in his sermon at Pisidia, would also stick to that identical time frame (13:23-37). Peter finishes his sermon by referring to the fulfillment of prophecy by Jesus (verse 43), a theme that Luke has been emphasizing since the day of the LordÕs resurrection (cf. Luke 24:27,45). Peter had planned to preach at greater length Ñ indeed, he felt he had barely begun his sermon (11:15) Ñ but the Holy Spirit had something else in mind. While the apostle is yet speaking, there is a sudden renewal of the same charismatic outpouring narrated in 2:4. Indeed, that first outpouring, by introducing the diverse languages of the various nations, had foreshadowed this one, in which "the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also" (verse 45), who are promptly baptized. Normally, of course, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit is associated with the sacramental experience of baptism and the laying on of hands (as we saw in 8:12-17). Still, the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit, ever blowing where He wills, sovereign even over the order of the sacraments, and subject to no confinement. In the present instance, the Holy Spirit seems to be in a hurry and eager to remove every doubt.
Friday, July 5
Acts 11:1-18: From the perspective of those whose lives had been governed by strict adherence to the strictures of the Mosaic Law, Peter had played a bold hand at Caesarea, and they require an explanation from him (verses 2-3). His explanation permits Luke to tell once again the story of PeterÕs heavenly vision, along with the subsequent events at Caesarea. Thus, every aspect of this story is told twice. Indeed, more, because Peter even tells again the story of CorneliusÕs own vision (verses 13-14) Ñ the third time this story has been included in the Book of Acts. Obviously Luke is taking considerable pains to demonstrate that what was done at Caesarea was done under divine guidance. In this connection Peter comments that what happened at CorneliusÕs house reminded him of what Jesus had earlier asserted with respect to the Holy Spirit (verse 16; cf. 1:5). Moreover, one of the SpiritÕs chief gifts is that of reminding Christians of the teaching of Jesus and throwing further light thereon (cf. John 2:17,22; 14:26).
Saturday, July 6
Acts 11:19-30: Having narrated the conversion of Saul, and PeterÕs proclamation to Cornelius, Luke now goes back to the dispersion of the Christians at the murder of Stephen (cf. 8:1,4). His intent is to focus on Antioch, where so many Jews and Gentiles had joined in such close fellowship that a new name had to be devised to identify them, "Christians." This communion of Jews and Gentiles in the Church was beginning to put considerable strain on the ChurchÕs relationship to Judaism. It was becoming more difficult to think of the latter as simply containing the former. The situation was also causing strain in the consciences of some Jewish Christians who still felt obliged to observe the Mosaic Law, particularly the regulations about kosher foods and abstention from close contact with Gentiles. Concerned about this, the apostles sent the ever-trusted Barnabas to Antioch to investigate the situation. Barnabas, realizing the great potential for further growth and evangelism represented in Antioch, went on to Tarsus to find his energetic friend Saul (cf. 9:3). Together they spend a year at Antioch, that year apparently being A.D. 45-46. The famine (verse 28) fell in the reign of Claudius (A.D. 41-54), evidently the year 46 (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 20.101). In prophesying this famine, Agabus is the spiritual heir of ancient Joseph in Egypt. The transfer of this charitable donation to relieve the famine (verse 29) becomes the occasion of Saul'sÕ second visit to Jerusalem since his conversion.