Sunday, July 11
Acts 15:13-22: Peter, guided by his own experience in the conversion of Cornelius and his friends, enunciates what will henceforth serve as the practical principle to be followed in the evangelization of the Gentiles; namely, that they will not be compelled to submit to the Mosaic Law.
By way of response, James rises to give his own consent to this principle, which expresses God’s intention to draw even from the Gentiles “a people of His name.” In addition, James goes on to cite this divine intention as the fulfillment of the prophecy in Amos 9:11-12, which he quotes in a variant of the standard Greek translation (Septuagint), not the Hebrew text that we may have expected at Jerusalem.
The burden of this text from Amos has to do with the rebuilding of the Davidic house and the re-gathering of God’s scattered children. As in the case of Cornelius, to which Paul alluded (verses 7-8), the active agent of this rebuilding and re-gathering is God: “I will return . . . I will rebuild . . . I will set up . . . says the Lord who does these things.”
This evangelical principle now established, however, James reminds the rest of the council that a certain pastoral delicacy will be needed in its application. If all of the Mosaic Law is neglected by the Gentile Christians indiscriminately and right away, the result can be a considerable scandal, because Jewish sensitivities may be deeply (and unnecessarily) offended. If, James argues, the Gentile converts should not be disturbed (verse 19), neither should the Jewish Christians (verse 21).
Therefore, he urges that four restrictions be placed on the Gentile converts with respect to the Mosaic Law (verse 20). James is not pulling these four components out of thin air. He is drawing them from Leviticus 17-18, which contains a list of rules for aliens living in the Holy Land: abstention from food sacrificed to idols (Leviticus 17:8-9), from the consumption of blood (17:10-12) and strangled animals (17:15), and from illicit sexual intercourse (18:6-18).
Later on, even though St. Paul’s epistles never refer to this decision of the Jerusalem council, we will find him applying exactly the same sensitivity that James expresses here to address a concrete pastoral situation (1 Corinthians 8-10).
Monday, July 12
Acts 15:22-35: Since the letter to be sent to the churches represents the mind of the apostles and elders at Jerusalem, two envoys from Jerusalem are commissioned to carry it. These will now join Paul and Barnabas, who are returning to Antioch. One of them, Silas, determines to remain in that city.
With respect to the letter itself, it is important to observe its pastoral intent and the fairly restricted application of its mandates. It was not a document intended to be universally applied in the Christian mission at all times and in every place. The letter was addressed only to the “mixed” congregations of Syria and Cilicia that had been evangelized by the “mixed” congregation at Antioch.
Although the document upheld the principle that Gentile converts are not subject to the Mosaic Law, it determined nothing definitive regarding the Church’s relationship to that Law in general. (Paul would theologically work out a few years later in connection with the Galatian crisis.)
Neither should the letter’s four-fold restriction on Christian freedom be understood as Holy Scripture’s definitive word on the subject. For instance, notwithstanding the prohibition against eating meats sacrificed to idols, Paul’s own treatment of the question will be considerably more nuanced (cf. 1 Corinthians 8). (Similarly, it would be a distortion to understand that apostolic letter as containing a permanent and universal prohibition against consuming blood, and, in fact, some Christians over the centuries have become quite expert in the production of excellent blood-sausages!)
The letter itself manifests another aspect of its apostolic authority: It appeals to the Holy Spirit as revealing His will in the apostolic action itself. This body of men was clearly aware of itself as possessed of authority to speak on behalf of the Holy Spirit (verse 28). This principle of the conciliar authority of the Church to determine matters not only of discipline, but also of the content of the Christian faith, was to become one of the defining characteristics of the Church that wrote the Creed and determined the canon of the New Testament.
Tuesday, July 13
Acts 15:36—16:5: The “second missionary journey” of the apostle Paul, which apparently commences in the early spring of A.D. 49, was conceived as a plan to visit the new congregations founded during the previous journey. While the reason given here for the separation of Barnabas and Paul — their contention regarding John Mark — ties this story back to 13:13, a look at Galatians 2:11-14 suggests that there may also have been some of sources of tension between the two men.
Notwithstanding the sharpness of their altercation (paroxsysmos in 15:39), nonetheless, it would be incorrect to see their separation as a complete and radical break. Indeed, one observes that it involved a simple dividing of the territory between them, Barnabas returning to Cyprus, and Paul going back to Cilicia. After their argument was over, we find no more evidence of bad feeling between the Paul and Barnabas (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:1-6) or between Paul and John Mark (cf. Colossians 4:10; Philemon 24; 2 Timothy 4:11).
Parting company with Barnabas, Paul is now accompanied by Silas, also known by the Latin name Silvanus, who will be with him for the next several years (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Corinthians 1:19). Just as he was apparently Paul’s secretary in the composition of the two epistles to the Thessalonians, Mark later did the same service for the apostle Peter (1 Peter 5:12).
Early in this second missionary trip, Paul picks up yet another companion, young Timothy, from a family evidently converted during the earlier missionary journey (2 Timothy 1:5). As this young man matured over the next several years, Timothy would be given ever-greater responsibilities in the ministry, amply justifying the reputation he already enjoyed (16:2; Philippians 2:19-20). Because Paul’s usual approach to the evangelization of any city was to start in the local synagogue, he causes Timothy to be circumcised, so that the latter’s presence in the synagogue would not be a source of scandal to the Jews (16:3). Later on, some of Paul’s critics will apparently accuse him of opportunism in this matter (Galatians 5:11), but his intention seems best explained by his later reflections in 1 Corinthians 9:20. Paul was unwilling to give unnecessary offense that might impede the cause of the Gospel.
Wednesday, July 14
The First Book of Kings: This book covers about a century, beginning with the death of David (961) and ending with the death of Ahaziah of Samaria (849), and thus forms a natural continuation of either 2 Samuel or 1 Chronicles. After several chapters describing the reign of Solomon (961-922), its narrative alternates back and forth between the kingdoms of Judah in the south and Israel, or Samaria, in the north, relating the chronology of each king's reign with that of his corresponding number in the other kingdom. Thus, Asa of Judah begins to reign in the 20th year of the reign of Jeroboam I of Israel (913), and so forth.
The most significant difference in the treatment of these two dynastic thrones is the emphasis placed on the "queen mother" of the Davidic kings in the south. In every instance this woman is named. Never does the author of Kings permit us to forget that the dynasty in the south, the Davidic line, was the special concern of prophecy and providence; unlike the sundry dynasties of Samaria, the throne at Jerusalem was ever the bearer of the messianic mystery.
For all that, perhaps the more interesting and memorable narratives in this book come from the north, where the 9th century royal family of Omri established political and mercantile ties with the Phoenicians. A Phoenician princess named Jezebel was wedded to Omri's son, Ahab, initiating a very aggressive policy of paganism in Omri's new capital, Samaria. All this activity evokes the great ministry of the prophet Elijah, who is by far the most dynamic and unforgettable figure in this book.
Thursday, July 15
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 not surprise us that such a decree would 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 Rome itself. Founded by Philip II in 358 B.C., it 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,” the Macedonians insist, could not lawfully accept (16:21).
Indeed, unlike the other cities that Paul had 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 thing 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 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.
Friday, July 16
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 when I visited Philippi 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 man’s “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 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 or by the remotest implication, 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).
Saturday, July 17
Acts 17:1-15: Leaving Luke to pastor the new congregation at Philippi, which contains at least two household (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 some 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, Paul’s 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 Paul’s 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, decides 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.