Sunday, July 21
Acts 16:6-15: Beginning in verse 10 appears the first of the "we" sections of this book, those parts written in what grammarians call the first person plural. The present "daily reflections" on the Book of Acts assume as accurate the ancient view that the "we" sections of Acts narrate those incidents and events to which the bookÕs author, the physician Luke, was a personal eye-witness. Thus, it appears that Luke joined PaulÕs company at the coastal city of Troas, near the site of primitive Troy (16:6). Was Luke converted during PaulÕs brief sojourn at Troas, or had he already been a Christian for some time? The answer to this question should take into consideration that Luke already appears to be a mature Christian, capable of assuming difficult pastoral responsibilities. When Paul leaves Philippi only a short time later (16:40), he is able to leave Luke in charge of the new congregation in that city, where he will once again join Paul some eight years later (20:5). (Thus, it is reasonable to understand PaulÕs mention of his "loyal yoke-fellow" in Philippians 4:3 as a reference to Luke, who pastored that congregation, as far as we can tell, between the years 49 and 57.) The burden of the present reading in Acts is to show how the ministry of the apostle Paul passed from Asia to Europe (16:9-11). Thus, the last Asian city to be evangelized by Paul on this second journey was Troas, to which he would return briefly in the mid-50s (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:12). He would come back there one last time in A.D. 57, making his final journey to Jerusalem (Acts 20:5-13). When in Troas at that time, Paul will lodge with a Christian named Carpus (probably the owner of that large three-storied house described in Acts 20:8-9), at whose home he inadvertently left a cloak, some books, and some expensive parchments (2 Timothy 4:13). In the present account we see that PaulÕs initial trip to Macedonia from Troas required only two days (verse 11), a trip facilitated by the steady current that flows from the colder Black Sea, through the Dardanelles, into the warmer waters of the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean basin. PaulÕs later return trip to Troas will take much longer and require either very strong favorable winds from the west or the labor of galley slaves (20:6). PaulÕs first European city, Philippi, was served by the port town of Neapolis ("new city"), which is the modern Kavalla. The river referred to here is the Gangites, slightly outside the city. It was at this river that the imperial forces of Octavius and Mark Anthony had defeated the republican army of Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi in 42 B.C. The local Jews met at this site, outside the city, for reasons to be mentioned later. It is here that Paul makes his first convert in Europe, a business woman from the Asian city of Thyatira, which would eventually have a Christian congregation of its own (cf. Revelation 2:24). Lydia was a "fearer of God" (verse 14), much like Cornelius in Acts 10.
Monday, July 22
Psalm 41 (Greek & Latin 40): The voice of this psalm is that of Christ our Lord, and its context is His saving passion. More specifically this psalmÕs context is ChristÕs betrayal by Judas Iscariot. We know this because, on the very night of that betrayal, the Lord quoted this psalm with reference to it, saying that JudasÕs act of treachery happened "that the Scripture may be fulfilled, ŌHe who eats bread with Me has lifted up his heel against MeÕ" (John 13:18). (The Lord said this during the Last Supper, which thus seems to determine the ŌbreadÕ in this psalm to be the Holy Communion.) Other verses of the psalm go on to elaborate the setting of the LordÕs Passion: "All who hate me whisper together against me; against me they devise my hurt." This "whispering together" (the literal meaning of ŌconspiracyÕ) of the LordÕs enemies is likewise recorded in the Gospels: "Then the Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Herodians against Him, how they might destroy Him" (Mark 3:6); "Then, from that day on, they plotted to put Him to death" (John 11:53). This psalm, then, narrates the prayer of Jesus in the setting of that unfolding drama of deceit and betrayal. It ends, however, on the note of His Paschal triumph over death and the demons: "But You, O Lord, be merciful to me, and raise me up, that I may repay them. By this I know that You are well pleased with me, because my enemy does not triumph over me."
Tuesday, July 23
Acts 16:16-24: In the year 49, the very year in which Paul began this journey, the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome (cf. Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars "Claudius" 25; Acts of the Apostles 18:2). It should no surprise to us that such a decree would also be taken seriously at the Macedonian city of Philippi, where Paul and his company were struggling to found a new church. Philippi was, after all, a "colony" of Rome (16:12), a sort of legal extension of the capital city itself. Founded by Philip II in 358 B.C., Philippi was settled largely by the families of the imperial soldiers who had been bequeathed real estate in the place as a reward for their part in the Battle of Philippi in 42 B.C. These were Romans, whom the Roman penal code prohibited from becoming Jews (cf. Cicero, On the Laws 2.18,19; Dio Cassius, Roman History 67.14). In the present reading Paul is accused (falsely) of trying to win proselytes to Judaism, teaching customs which "we Romans," these Macedonians insist, could not lawfully accept (16:21). Indeed, unlike the other cities that Paul evangelized, Philippi has no synagogue. The few Jews in the city are obliged, as we saw, to worship outside of the city limits, and these seem chiefly to be women (16:13). The matter of Roman citizenship will become rather ironical in this chapter. Whereas Paul is arrested for teaching things unacceptable to Romans, it turns out that he is himself a Roman citizen and will make a sharp point of this fact at the end of the story (16:36-38; cf. also 22:25-29; 23:37). This matter of proper citizenship will remain a touchy subject for the church at Philippi. Paul would later remind them that their real "citizenship" (politeuma) is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). Therefore, they were to "live out citizenship (politevesthe) in the Gospel" (Philippians 1:27). Christians, after all, are "fellow citizens (sympolitai) with the saints" (Ephesians 2:19). We also observe that the ordinary citizens of Philippi do not object to what Paul is doing in their city until his activity begins to affect the economy (16:19; similarly, cf. 19:25-26). Whereas Paul has been preaching the kingdom of heaven, his critics insist on viewing the Gospel solely through the lens of politics and economics. That is to say, the Gospel is perceived to stand in the way of "business as usual." Their perception is, of course, correct.
Wednesday, July 24
Acts 16:25-40: When God hears in heaven the prayers of His faithful, dramatic things begin to happen on earth. Paul and Silas are singing their hymn, and immediately God answers their prayers with an earthquake (16:25-26; Revelation 8:4-5). The jailer, who evidently lives nearby, is roused from his slumber (exs-hypnos) and comes running at the disturbance, only to find that the door of the jail is ajar. Presuming that his prisoners have escaped, and knowing that his own life is forfeit if this is the case, he draws his sword to kill himself. Paul, his eyes better accommodated to the darkness, sees all this, as the view from the "inner cell" of the double-cell prison (16:24) takes in the front door and the area immediately outside. (This jail was excavated beneath the ancient church of Saints Paul and Silas. I was able to enter it on July 17, 1973, but in recent years it has not been open to the public. Still, it is possible to examine it visually through the grating that now guards the outer entrance.) When a light is brought (verse 29), the jailer discovers that his prisoners are still there. Now, no longer concerned that they will escape, he suddenly becomes concerned for his own salvation (verse 30). His question, "What must I do to be saved?" is met with a call for faith, and the man, with his family, is catechized during the few remaining hours of the night (verse 32). Three things should be noted by the remark that the manÕs "whole household" was baptized. First, it is extremely unlikely that they were fully immersed in water. There would have been no facility for such a thing in the humble dwelling of a jailer, and the distance to the Gangites River, especially in the middle of the night, would have been prohibitive. This seems, therefore, to have been one of those occasions where the baptism was done by the pouring of water over the head, such as we see prescribed as an alternate rite even prior to the year 100 (cf. Didache 7). Second, no distinction is made (in this text of Acts) between adults and children, or even infants. It is the household itself that is baptized, the entire family, and precisely as a family. A "believing household" does not mean that every person in it has come to the full realization of adult faith. Children and infants in such a household share in the faith of their parents, according to the individual capacities that are proper to their age and condition. There is nothing in the text to suggest, even faintly, that they were excluded from baptism. Third, the expression "whole household" seems to have, in this context, a more technical meaning, indicating that the home in question is now a possible "safe house," where Christians can gather without fear of denunciation or betrayal to oppressive political authorities. (cf. also 5:42; 11:14; 16:15; 18:8; John 4:53). Such a home can in principle be, if large enough, the place where missionaries are lodged, the Gospel discussed, and the Eucharist celebrated by the whole congregation (cf. Acts 2:4; 20:7-8; Romans 16:4-5; Colossians 4:15; Philemon 2).
Thursday, July 25
Acts 17:1-15: Leaving Luke to pastor the new congregation at Philippi, which contains at least two households (16:15,34) and probably a good number of others (16:20), Paul travels some thirty miles eastward, accompanied by Silas and Timothy. Going along the Egnatian Road that joined the Adriatic and Aegean seas, they come to the capital of Macedonia, Amphipolis (17:1), where they could not fail to observe the large stone statue of a lion that had been placed beside that road centuries earlier and still beckons to the cameras of tourists today. They go another thirty miles to Apollonia, and then about thirty-five miles to Thessaloniki, where, once more, they begin their ministry in the local synagogue (17:2; cf. 13:514; 14:1; 17:10,17; 18:4,19; 19:8; 28:17,23; Romans 1:16; 2:9-10). Although Paul and his missionary team will remain in Thessaloniki only three weeks, the congregation that they establish during those three weeks remains there to the present day, an unbroken history of almost two thousand years. Because his initial instructions to the new congregation are so severely shortened, Paul will be obliged to write them two epistles over the next eighteen months, in order to answer their several questions and to deal with matters that he was not able to cover adequately during the three weeks that he spent in their company. Those two Epistles to the Thessalonians will thus become the (probably) earliest writings collected into the New Testament. As usual, PaulÕs converts here include both Jews and those Gentiles who regularly attend the synagogue (17:4). Two of these are Secundus (20:4) and Aristarchus (27:2). Once again also, it is the unbelieving Jews who make trouble for PaulÕs ministry (17:5). In his letter written to the congregation some months later, Paul will have some fairly harsh things to say about those Jews (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16). Leaving Thessaloniki, Paul and his companions go some fifty miles southwest to Beroea, the modern Verria, which Cicero called an out-of-the-way town. Here they once again commence by preaching in the synagogue, where their efforts meet considerable success (17:11-12). One of the new converts in Beroea is a man named Sopater (20:4). Meanwhile, news of the apostolic success in Beroea reaches back to Thessaloniki, where that group of particularly malevolent Jews, who had already driven Paul from their own town, decide to come and make more trouble for him in Beroea. Since most of the opposition is aimed at Paul specifically, he alone leaves town this time, while Silas and Timothy remain in Beroea for the nonce (17:14-15). Paul goes on to Athens. After Timothy joins him in Athens, Paul will send him back to strengthen the Macedonian congregations (1 Thessalonians 3:1-3). Both Timothy and Silas will later join him at Corinth (Acts18:5; 1 Thessalonians 3:6-10). In response to their report, Paul will then send the First Epistle to the Thessalonians from Corinth, either in late 49 or early 50.
Friday, July 26
Acts 17:16-34: Standing not very many yards from the spot where Socrates defended his philosophy to the citizens of Athens, the apostle Paul now delivers his own defense of the Gospel to the philosophers. Luke notes two philosophical schools in particular, the Stoics and the Epicureans (verse 18). These two philosophical schools interpret the world in radically different ways. The Epicureans believe themselves to be living in an entirely meaningless cosmos, completely subject to chance, a world (to use SpenglerÕs helpful distinction) of "incident" but not "destiny." While the Epicurean world is devoid of either purpose or direction, it does give man a great deal of room for freedom, not only in the sense of his being able, by his choices, to escape the constraints of external forces, but also in the sense of not being answerable to an eternal moral law backed up by divine sanctions. The EpicureanÕs happiness depends on how he uses this vast freedom, and he chooses to do so by living for pleasure. Not the base pleasures of the flesh, but the higher enjoyments of the mind and the refined senses. Epicureanism, then, is the philosophy of cultivated, refined pleasure. The ethics of the Epicurean is thus an ethics of self-discipline and restraint. The Stoic world, on the other hand, is far from meaningless. Indeed, it is utterly suffused with meaning (logos). Existence, for the Stoic, has so much intrinsic meaning, that man is really quite unable to add to it. So what dimensions of existence are left to manÕs freedom? If human existence is already determined by a profound meaning that man does not put there, and to which man is unable to make a personal contribution, how is man to live? The Stoics answer, by inwardly accepting the way things are, by purging his heart and mind from those passions and desires that would cause him to depart from the meaning at the heart of existence. The world is already under control; man must learn to control himself. The ethics of the Stoic, then, is also an ethics of self-discipline and restraint. To these two groups Paul preaches a theology of history, in which the deeds of men will be judged, not by themselves in accord with their varying moral theories, but by God who "has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained" (verse 31). In this earliest encounter of the Gospel with pagan philosophy, we observe especially the difficulty experienced by the latter in dealing with the material world (the Resurrection!) and the moral structure of history. Paul can barely begin this discussion, so great is the opposition (verses 32-33). His converts in Athens appear to be few, but they include a woman philosopher named Damaris (verse 34).
Saturday, July 27
Acts 18:1-11: When he arrives in Corinth, coming from Athens, Paul is supremely depressed (1 Corinthians 2:3), perhaps from his relative failure at Athens, and probably also because he has not yet heard back from the delegation from Macedonia. It is now near or at the beginning of the year 50, and Paul will remain in Corinth until the summer of 51. The congregation that he founds at Corinth will be among the most contentious Christian churches of antiquity. There will be so many problems within that congregation that Paul himself will be obliged to write them at least four epistles, of which two are preserved in the New Testament (or three, if 2 Corinthians is a composite of two epistles). In addition, before the end of the century the church at Corinth will receive yet another letter from Clement, the third Bishop of Rome, reprimanding them yet again for the same sorts of dissension, rebellion, and contentiousness that had so grieved Paul at the earlier period. A modern scholar, K. Stendhal, remarked about the church at Corinth that it "had almost all the problems that churches have had through the ages, except the chief problem of our churches today: it was never boring." Under the guidance of divine providence, of course, those Corinthian troubles have worked unto our own spiritual profit, for without them we would not have some of the most important pages of the New Testament (1 Corinthians 13, for instance). The city of Corinth joins two major seaways separated only by a half-mile of isthmus, which bears the same name as the city. Thus, the latter has major ports on both sides and was a very bustling commercial center. (In modern times a canal across the isthmus joins those two waterways more directly.) Although Cicero called it "the light of all Greece," the philosopher Diogenes, who certainly knew the place batter (and would eventually die in it), said that he went there only because a wise man should go where the most fools are to be found. The first people to meet Paul in Corinth, however, were not fools. They were a couple, Aquila and his wife, newly arrived from Rome. The wifeÕs name is Prisca (1 Corinthians 16:19; Romans 16:3; 2 Timothy 4:19), though Luke always calls her by the affectionate diminutive name, Priscilla ("little Prisca") (verse 2). It is also curious that Luke twice names the wife before the husband (18:18,26), which may hint which of the two impresses him as the stronger and more striking personality. Like Paul they are leather-workers (skenopoioi), a profession involved in making tents, saddles, and such things. Meanwhile, Silas and Timothy arrive from Macedonia (verse 5), bringing reports from the congregations at Philippi, Thessaloniki, and Beroea. In response to one of these reports, Paul writes the First Epistle to the Thessalonians early in the year 50, including the names of Silas and Timothy as joint-authors (1 Thessalonians 1:1). Here in Corinth Paul also has his usual troubles with the Jews (verse 6), so he simply takes his teaching next door to the synagogue (verse 7), and he takes the leader of the synagogue with him. This was Crispus ("curly"), who will appear later in 1 Corinthians 1:14-16.