Exclusively published to the Touchstone website each week, these Daily Reflections are brief commentaries on the lectionary readings contained in the St. James Daily Devotional Guide. The reflections are penned by Patrick Henry Reardon, editor of the Daily Devotional Guide and a senior editor of Touchstone. Father Reardon provides here a very brief directional clue for one of the texts each day. Long-time readers of the Daily Devotional Guide will find these reflections an additional help to their reading of Holy Scripture which they can print and keep with their Guide.
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Sunday, June 12
Acts 11:27—12:4: 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's' second visit to Jerusalem since his conversion.
From the perspective of chronology, Acts 12 is something of a "flashback." Luke's narrative so far has taken us up to the year 46. Now, however, he looks back to the reign of Herod Agrippa I (A.D. 37-44), and more specifically to the end of that reign. He will bring us back to A.D. 46 at the end of this chapter.
For a proper understanding of this story of Peter's imprisonment, it is important to make note of the time when the event happens. Peter is delivered from prison at the Passover, the very night commemorating Israel's deliverance from bondage in Egypt. As the angel of the Lord came through the land that night to remove Israel's chains by slaying the first-born of Israel's oppressors, so the delivering angel returns to strike the fetters from Peter's hands and lead him forth from the dungeon. And as Israel's earlier liberation foreshadowed that Paschal Mystery whereby Jesus our Lord led all of us from our servitude to the satanic Pharaoh by rising from the dead, so we observe aspects of the Resurrection in Peter's deliverance from prison.
Monday, June 13
Acts 12:5-17: As we have already reflected, Peter is delivered from prison at the Passover, the very night commemorating Israel's deliverance from bondage in Egypt. As the angel of the Lord came through the land that night to remove Israel's chains by slaying the first-born of Israel's oppressors, so the delivering angel returns to strike the fetters from Peter's hands and lead him forth from the dungeon. And as Israel's earlier liberation foreshadowed that Paschal Mystery whereby Jesus our Lord led all of us from our servitude to the satanic Pharaoh by rising from the dead, so we observe aspects of the Resurrection in Peter's deliverance from prison.
Like the tomb of Jesus, Peter's cell is guarded by soldiers (verses 4,6). That cell, again like the tomb of Jesus, is invaded by a radiant angelic presence, and the very command to Peter is to "arise" (anasta—verse 7). It is no wonder that in regarding Rafael's famous chiaroscuro depiction of this scene in the apartments in the Vatican (over the window in the Stanza of Heliodorus), the viewer must look very closely, for his first impression is that he is looking at a traditional portrayal of the Lord's Resurrection. And what is the Church doing during all that night of the Passover? Praying (verses 5,12); indeed, it is our first record of a Paschal Vigil Service. Peter's guards, alas, must share the fate of Egypt's first-born sons (verse 19).
Tuesday, June 14
Acts 12:18-25: The Paschal scene portrayed in Peter's deliverance from prison is fittingly followed by the death of Herod, who appears as another Pharaoh.
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 Herod's 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 Herod's 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).
Wednesday, June 15
Acts 13:1-12: Here begins the story of Paul's 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.
Chapters 13-14 narrate Paul's 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 island's 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.
Thursday, June 16
Acts 13:13-30: 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 man's immaturity as an indication that he cannot be entrusted with the serious labor of evangelism. Whatever Paul says at the time is not recorded ("Mama's 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 this time, and the two apostles visit their synagogue on the following Sabbath. Answering an invitation to give a "word of exhortation" (logos paraklesos—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).
Verses 26-41 contain Point #2 of Paul's 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 the death and Resurrection of 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).
Friday, June 17
Acts 13:29-41: The Resurrection of Jesus, Paul contends, is God's 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 God's 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 Jesus' 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).
Saturday, June 18
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).
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