Sunday, July 20
Acts 12:20Ń13:3: This scene of Herod meeting with the Phoenician delegation is also described by another writer contemporary to the event, Flavius Josephus, who includes a gripping depiction of HerodŐs silver robe glistening in the sunlight. Like Luke, Josephus mentions their addressing him as a "god." The action of the angel who kills Herod Agrippa I in verse 23 stands in contrast to the angelic liberation of Peter, narrated earlier in this chapter. The description of HerodŐs death is usefully compared to the death of the blaspheming Antiochus Epiphanes IV in 2 Maccabees 9:5-28. Immediately after telling the story, Luke takes us forward again to A.D. 46. Barnabas and Saul, having delivered the collection for the famine to the church at Jerusalem (11:30), leave to return to Antioch, taking with them John Mark, a younger kinsman of Barnabas (12:25; cf. Colossians 4:10). Then begins the story of PaulŐs three missionary journeys, which will occupy the next several chapters. We observe that Antioch has now risen to the status of a missionary center (which it has remained unto this day!). Indeed, the very severe political climate at Jerusalem in the late 60s, culminating in the destruction of the city by the Romans in the year 70, caused Antioch to surpass Jerusalem as a missionary center in the East, rather much as Rome became in the West, and, somewhat later, Alexandria in Egypt. In the year 325, these three churches (Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch) were made the patriarchal churches, each having oversight of the other churches in those three continents that shape the Mediterranean Sea.
Monday, July 21
Acts 13:4-12: Chapters 13-14 narrate PaulŐs first missionary journey during the years 47-48, also mentioned in 2 Timothy 3:11. The apostles depart from the port of Seleucia, which, sitting sixteen miles west, served the city of Antioch. They first visit the homeland of Barnabas, the island of Cyprus, which had a good number of Jewish inhabitants (cf. 1 Maccabees 15:23). The ruins of the ancient city of Salamis, on the east coast of the island, can easily be reached by taxi from the nearby modern city of Famagusta, and, if the visitor is as fortunate as myself, the taxi driver will include a private tour and some local fresh oranges for a reasonable price. It will be standard practice for the apostle Paul, when he comes to evangelize any new city, to pay his first visit to "the synagogue of the Jews" (13:5,14; 14:1; 16:13; 17:10,17; 18:4,19; 19:8; 28:17,23). (Indeed, this expression, "synagogue of the Jews," is preserved on a small marble plaque that once adorned the synagogue at Corinth; it may be seen today in the small museum in that city.) Traversing the length of Cyprus, the apostles arrive at Paphos on the islandŐs southwest coast. Here they make the right impression on the local proconsul, Sergius Paulus, by putting a false prophet in his proper place. Sergius Paulus, of the illustrious Roman family Paula, was well known in his day and is mentioned by name in inscriptions from Cyprus, Antioch in Pisidia, and Rome. Easily ranking the Centurion Cornelius of Caesarea, Sergius Paulus becomes the most highly placed Roman official to join the Church.
Tuesday, July 22
St. Mary Magdalene: The post-Resurrection stories of the New Testament, analyzed from a literary perspective, fall into two categories, each with its own set of interests.
The first of these we may think of as apologetic and kerygmatic. That is to say, certain stories are part of the Church's witness to the world; they stress the reality of the Lord's Resurrection. Thus, one notices considerable emphasis on the eyewitness testimony, just as there might be in a courtroom. Indeed, in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 there is an early list of qualified witnesses well known among the early Christians. One notes the heavy accent on apostolic authority; in the main, the people listed here were official spokesmen for the Church, Her authorized witnesses to the world (cf. also Acts 1:21f). Official testimony had to be clear and unmistakable, emphasizing the identity of the risen Christ beyond doubt. We find exactly this kind of emphasis in a few of the Gospel accounts (Luke 24:36-43; John 21:24-29).
But there is a second kind of post-Resurrection story with an emphasis very different from the first kind. To appreciate this difference, one may begin by noting who is absent in the first type of story Ń the women! How could these women be witnesses to the world? After all, even the Church had not believed them!
Thus, in Paul's list of official witnesses, there is not a single word about the Lord's appearances to the women. On the contrary, he says that the risen Jesus "was seen by Cephas" (1 Corinthians 15: Now when we turn to the Gospels themselves, quite a different emphasis shows itself. Indeed, here we read: "Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene" (Mark 16:9). In the official list in 1 Corinthians 15, she is not even mentioned. The contrast is striking.
In the second sort of story we are no longer concerned so much with the Church's witness to the world; we are, rather, dealing with the Church's inner memory, Her devout and tender meditation on that first Easter morning and the ensuing days. In these accounts, the first apparitions are made to the women (Matthew 28:9; Luke 20:11-18). Indeed, the women are not even believed by the Apostles when they announce the empty tomb and the vision of angels (Mark 16:11; Luke 24:1-11).
In this second type of story, then, we are dealing less with official testimony than with a kind of prayerful meditation. Thus, the Lord is not necessarily recognized right away. The two disciples on the way to Emmaus, and the seven disciples out at the Sea of Galilee do not know Him until some crucial point in the account. And the context of the recognition has something very spiritual about it: the disciples on the road recognize him in the act of the breaking of the bread, and the seven on the lake once again share a meal of bread and fish. In these stories we are not dealing with the Church's testimony to the world, but with the Church's inner life of communion with the risen Lord.
Such a story is that of Mary Magdalene in John 20:11-18. Like the bride in the Song of Solomon (3:1-4), she rises early while it is still dark and goes out seeking him whom her soul loves, the one whom she calls "my Lord." In an image reminiscent of both Genesis and the Song of Solomon, she comes to the garden of His burial (19:41). Indeed, she first takes him to be the gardener, which, as the new Adam, he most certainly is. Her eyes blinded by tears, she does not at once know him. He speaks to her, but even then she does not recognized his voice. The dramatic moment of recognition arrives when the risen Jesus pronounces her own name: "Mary." Only then does she know him as "Rabbouni," "my Teacher."
In this story, then, Christians perceive in Mary Magdalene an image of themselves meeting their risen Lord and Good Shepherd: "... the sheep hear his voice; he calls his own sheep by name ..., for they know his voice" (John 19:3f.). This Narrative of Mary Magdalene is an affirmation that Christian identity comes of recognizing the voice of Christ who speaks our own name in the mystery of salvation: ". . . the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me" (Galatians 2:20). This is truly an "in house" memory of the Church; it can only be understood within the community of salvation, for it describes a wisdom not otherwise available to this world.
Wednesday, July 23
Acts 13:13-25: At the end of the mission on Cyprus, John Mark, apparently suffering from homesickness, leaves the company to return to Jerusalem. His departure makes a very negative impression on the apostle Paul, who regards the young manŐs immaturity as an indication that he cannot be entrusted with the serious labor of evangelism. Whatever Paul says at the time is not recorded ("MamaŐs boy"?), but he will have plenty to pronounce on the point two chapters later. It should also be noted that, beginning at 13:13, we no longer hear about "Barnabas and Saul" but "Paul and his companions." Obviously there has been a dramatic shift in the personal dynamics of the mission. The two apostles (evidently accompanied by others at this time) sail north to the southern shore of what we now call the Turkish peninsula, landing at the port of Attalia and journeying some five miles inland to Perga, capital of Pamphylia. From there they pass on to "Pisidian Antioch," which is actually in Phrygia, near the border with Pisidia, and served as a governmental center for the south of the province of Galatia. (Will these be the people who will receive the Epistle to the Galatians in about six years?) From a local inscription we know that many Jews live in Pisidian Antioch at the time, and the two apostles visit their synagogue on the following Sabbath. Answering an invitation to give a "word of exhortation" (logos paraklesos Ń verse 15; cf. Hebrews 13:22), Paul gives the first of his great sermons to be preserved in the Book of Acts. One will observe that it is a three-point sermon, each point beginning with a renewed form of address (verses 16-25, verses 26-37, verses 38-41).
Thursday, July 24
Acts 13:26-41: This section contains Point #2 of PaulŐs sermon, taking up the significance of Jesus, whom he introduced at the end of Point #1. The synagogue congregation has just been listening to the writings of the prophets (13:15), and now Paul speaks of the fulfillment of their prophecies in Jesus (13:27). This has been a standard theme in Acts, of course (cf. 3:18,21,24; 4:28; 10:43). Luke does not identify which prophets Paul and Barnabas listened to in the synagogue on this day. Surely it is significant, nonetheless, that Paul introduces Jesus into his "word of exhortation" precisely in connection with the Davidic covenant (verse 22-23). The Resurrection of Jesus, he contends, is GodŐs fulfillment of the promises made to David, and here (verse 34) he quotes Isaiah 55:3. We are justified in suspecting, therefore, that Isaiah 55, concerned with GodŐs fidelity to David in the context of the Babylonian Captivity, was one of the texts read in the synagogue on this day. In testimony to JesusŐ Resurrection Paul refers to the official eye-witnesses of the post-Resurrection appearances (verses 30-31; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:5-7). As he will do a few years later in Romans 1:4, Paul interprets the sonship of Jesus in Psalm 2 to His Resurrection (verse 34; cf. also the same interpretation in Hebrews 1:5; 5:5). To this psalm he adds Psalm 16 (15):10, which has been a standard Resurrection-text ever since Peter used it on Pentecost morning. Paul then addresses the matter of justification and forgiveness of sins (verses 38-39), following the same line of argument that he will later pursue in his epistles (cf. Romans 6:7; 8:3; 10:4; Galatians 2:16; 3:10-14,24).
Friday, July 25
Acts 13:42-52: In this scene we discern the context of certain impulses that produced agitation in the early Christian mission. Judaism itself already had an extensive mission in the Greco-Roman world (cf. Matthew 23:15). As synagogues were established in the major cities, serious pagans were impressed by what they saw. The life of the synagogue stood in stark contrast to the cultural and moral decay of the surrounding world, where despair was common. In the pagan world some of the major cultural institutions, particularly marriage and the family, were in serious trouble. Sex had become increasingly separated from marriage and from child-bearing, and there was some sense that this separation was related to various forms of polytheism. What the pagans beheld in the local synagogues, however, were communities of great strength and hope, solid marriages and the joys of family, a strict moral code in which all of life was integrated, a firm emphasis on simple labor as the basis of economic life, a rich inherited literature that imaginatively interpreted the life of the community, and the regularly scheduled, disciplined worship of a single, no-nonsense God. All of this proved to be very attractive to those serious pagans who felt distress and discomfort at the popular culture. Some of these pagans accepted circumcision and the observance of the Law, thus becoming full-fledged Jews; these were known as proselytes (Acts 2:10; 6:5). Other pagans were unwilling to go so far, because such a decision obviously tended to cut them off from their own families and friends. This second group simply attached themselves to the synagogues as best they could, bringing certain structures of Jewish piety into their lives, such as regular prayer and fasting and the study of the Scriptures; these were known as "fearers of God," of which we have already seen examples in Cornelius and his friends. Thus, there were two groups of Gentiles who in varying degrees joined themselves to the local synagogues in the larger cities of the Roman Empire. Now both of these groups felt a spontaneous attraction to the Gospel when they heard it proclaimed in the synagogue by Paul and his companions. In the Gospel they saw a form of religion with all the advantages of Judaism, but with none of the disadvantages, such as circumcision and the observance of the Mosaic Law. In the present reading, we observe that these people invite their other Gentile friends to come with them to the synagogue on the following Sabbath (13:44). Now, all of a sudden, the Jews find their own synagogue over-run with all sorts of "undesirables." They perceive Paul and his companions simply to be "taking over" the synagogue, preaching a doctrine that they themselves cannot control, and, from their perspective, things are getting entirely out of hand. The local Jews react with jealousy and animosity (13:45,50). After all, the Jewish religion had survived pure and intact by preserving those very disciplines that Paul and his friends seem to want to overthrow. The Gospel, then, they experience as chaos. The very "popularity" of the Gospel becomes a reason for the stricter Jew to feel uncomfortable about it. Trouble breaks out. This sequence of events, repeated over and over again in the synagogues of the larger cities, causes the Christian Church to grow among the Gentiles, who are finally obliged to establish their own local congregations apart from the local synagogues (14:1; 16:13; 17:1,10,17; 18:4,6,19; 19:8; 28:28).
Saturday, July 26
Acts 14:1-18: The city of Iconium (the present Konya), located about ninety miles southeast of Pisidian Antioch, was the regional capital of Lycaonia (cf. 14:6; 2 Timothy 3:11). The pattern of the mission in Pisidian Antioch is repeated in Iconium. Once again the apostles begin to evangelize the city by visiting the local synagogue, and the diverse responses of the various groups is identical to what we saw in the previous chapter. There is more going on than meets the eye, however. The very active Jesus continues to work His wonders within the body of believers (verse 3); however concealed from the view of the world, Jesus still walks among the candlesticks (Revelation 1:13; Matthew 28:20; Mark 16:17-20; 2 Corinthians 6:16). As the apostles flee from Iconium (verse 6), the Gospel is spread still farther. Lystra, whither they flee, is about twenty-five miles to the southwest. Here, PaulŐs healing of the lame man parallels the miracle of Peter in 3:2-8; the similarities, even down to small details, is striking. The response of the crowd in their own native tongue indicates what we might not otherwise have known, namely, that the apostles have been preaching through an interpreter. Inasmuch as a great deal "gets lost in translation," the crowd has evidently missed some of the finer points in the apostolic message. Monotheism, for instance! Witnessing the miraculous healing, these enthusiasts promptly identify the apostles with pagan gods. Their identification of Paul with Hermes, or the Latin "Mercury," is explained in verse 12. With respect to Barnabas, it is reasonable to think that his identification as Zeus, or the Latin "Jupiter" ("Zeus Pater," or "Zeus the father") probably had something to do with certain physical features (great height, large head, broad shoulders, and a majestic beard over a massive chest) and a more solemn presence. (Contrast this with PaulŐs physical appearance in 2 Corinthians 10:10) So Paul is Hermes the messenger; Barnabas is the strong, silent Zeus, who commands by his presence. Historians of literature draw our attention to a parallel story of Zeus and Hermes visiting Phrygia, preserved by Ovid, Metamorphosis 8:611-628). The very brief sermon of the apostles (verses 15-17) probably represents their typical approach to pagans outside the synagogue; it may serve as the outline to the longer sermon that Paul will give the philosophers in Athens in 17:22-31. The fickle crowd ends the story by stoning Paul, an incident he will later mention in 2 Corinthians 11:25; 2 Timothy 3:11.