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In Thessalonica September 28, 2016

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Here are my thoughts on Acts 17:1-9.

Summary: In this passage, Paul and his companions traveled to Thessalonica. They entered the Jewish synagogue in that city on three Sabbath days and preached the Gospel message to those in attendance. Some Jews and Greeks accepted the Gospel message – yet many Jews rejected it and formed a mob, intending to arrest Paul and Silas. When they did not find them in Jason’s house, they hauled Jason and some other believers before the city officials and charged them with aiding seditionists.

Thoughts: Here, we see that the city officials in Thessalonica were influenced – to some extent – by the accusations of the Jews regarding Paul and Silas. Given the conduct of the city officials in Philippi in the previous passage, I wonder if low-level functionaries in the New Testament era ever resisted the rabble-rousers in their cities. Did they ever attempt to fulfill the responsibilities of their positions by conducting a thorough investigation of any accusations that they heard? Did the concept of “innocent before proven guilty” not exist in the Roman Empire? Did these functionaries comprehend the distinction between a political kingdom and a spiritual kingdom?

Paul and Silas in Prison September 24, 2016

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Here are my thoughts on Acts 16:16-40.

Summary: In this passage, Paul drove an evil spirit out of a female slave in Philippi who had used divination to earn a handsome profit for her masters. Thus, they seized Paul and Silas and hauled them before the magistrates; they then accused them of breaking Roman laws, which spurred a mob to attack Paul and Silas. The magistrates responded to those charges by ordering that Paul and Silas be flogged and imprisoned. Yet God performed a miracle by causing a powerful earthquake that unchained all of the inmates and unlocked the doors to their cells. Paul and Silas refused to escape; instead, they preached the Gospel message to their jailer and brought him and his family to faith in Christ. Later, they left the city – after they forced the magistrates to confront their errors in their conduct towards them; in particular, Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, and so the magistrates had violated their rights under the Roman law.

Thoughts: In verse 25, we see that Paul and Silas praised God during their incarceration. Calvin offers some insights on this point:

Note that we cannot pray as we ought without praising God. The desire to pray may arise from an awareness of our need and troubles, and so it is combined with sorrow and anxiety; but believers must curb their feelings and not complain against God. The right sort of prayer unites our sorrow with the joy of our obedience to God and of the hope that shows us a haven close by even in the midst of shipwreck.

My thought is that God enabled Paul and Silas to maintain their focus on Him even in the midst of their troubles. They could have chosen to focus on their short-term predicament, as they were:

  • in pain from a severe flogging
  • confined to a gloomy dungeon with an indefinite release date.

Yet God enabled them to focus on His long-term vision and strive to honor Him, even though they may have been uncertain as to their role in His plans. We see the fruit that they bore as a result of their obedience to Him; this should spur us, as modern-day believers, to maintain our focus on God’s long-term vision even in the midst of our short-term predicaments (e.g. sickness, unemployment).

We also see that the magistrates in Philippi dealt with Paul and Silas in a ham-handed manner. Calvin offers some insights on this point in his commentary on verse 37:

Their defense rested on two grounds: they had treated a Roman citizen cruelly, and they had acted unlawfully. It was strictly decreed by the law of Porcius, the laws of Sempronius, and many others that no individual, but only the people, should have power of life and death over a Roman citizen.

I am curious as to how these magistrates obtained their positions. Were they political appointees? Was Philippi governed by an ochlocracy? What caused these magistrates to decide to release Paul and Silas from prison – especially after they had ordered them to be severely flogged? What were the ramifications of their actions in this passage? Did they persecute the church in Philippi after Paul and Silas left their city?

I anticipate meeting the Philippian jailer and his family in the next life and learning more about them. Was he born and raised in Philippi? How did he attain his position as a jailer? What was his – and his family’s – worldview before the events of this passage? What were his thoughts and emotions as Paul and Silas shared the Gospel message with him? Did his family accept the Gospel message with alacrity, or did they harbor doubts that Paul and Silas eventually resolved? How did they glorify God after the events of this passage?

Lydia’s Conversion in Philippi September 22, 2016

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Here are my thoughts on Acts 16:11-15.

Summary: In this passage, Paul and his companions traveled from Troas to Philippi. On the following Sabbath, they went to a nearby river to pray. There, they shared the Gospel message with several women, including Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from Thyatira. The Lord enabled Lydia to accept the Gospel message, and she and her household were baptized.

Thoughts: I anticipate meeting Lydia in the next life and learning more about her. How did she become a dealer in purple cloth? Did others in her family pursue a similar line of work? How often did she travel between Thyatira and Philippi? How did she come to worship the God of Israel – especially since she lived far from Judea? What were her thoughts and emotions when Paul shared the Gospel message with her for the first time? Was she able to strengthen the church in Philippi and spread the Gospel message to others in that city?

Paul’s Vision of the Man of Macedonia September 17, 2016

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Here are my thoughts on Acts 16:6-10.

Summary: In this passage, Paul and his companions traveled through Phrygia and Galatia, eventually reaching Troas. The Lord had kept them from preaching the Gospel message in Asia, Bithynia and Mysia – yet He then used a vision to command them to go to Macedonia.

Thoughts: Here, we see that the Lord limited Paul’s missionary aspirations. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point in his commentary on verse 6:

Therefore, there is nothing better than to leave God the freedom and power to give or withhold his grace as he pleases. Just as his eternal election is free, so is his calling that comes from it; it is not based on men, since it owes nothing to anyone. So we must recognize that the Gospel springs only from grace. God does not lack good reason for offering his Gospel to some and passing others by; but that reason lies hidden.

This passage reminded me of a trying experience; in particular, I had volunteered to serve as a co-leader on a short-term missions trip. I had been fairly excited about the opportunity to serve a local community and mentor some students in the process. Yet I was beset by some professional and personal issues that eventually compelled me to withdraw from that position. In retrospect, I could see God at work in those circumstances, as the missions team was able to flourish in my absence. Now a critical distinction between my experience and Paul’s experience in this passage is that I did not preach the Gospel to a second group of non-believers at that time. Clearly God was working through Paul and his companions to maintain their focus on missions even during his trying circumstances, and I would do well to emulate them in that regard in the future.

Timothy Joins Paul and Silas September 15, 2016

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Here are my thoughts on Acts 16:1-5.

Summary: In this passage, Paul and Silas traveled to Derbe and Lystra – where they encountered Timothy, a well-regarded believer. Paul then circumcised Timothy so that he could accompany them as they preached the Gospel message to Jews.

Thoughts: I am eager to meet Timothy in the next life and learn more about him. How did his parents meet? Did the residents of Lystra gossip about their relationship? What role did his mother play in his journey to faith in Christ? Did he first hear the Gospel message when Paul and Barnabas arrived in Lystra? Did he hear about the attempts by the residents of Lystra to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas – and if so, what were his thoughts on their actions? Why did other believers in Lystra and Iconium commend his faith? Did he accept Paul’s decision regarding his circumcision with alacrity?

Disagreement Between Paul and Barnabas September 11, 2016

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Here are my thoughts on Acts 15:36-41.

Summary: In this passage, Paul and Barnabas quarreled about whether John Mark should accompany them on their next missionary journey. They were unable to resolve that dispute, and so they parted ways; Barnabas sailed to Cyprus with John Mark, while Paul traveled throughout Syria and Cilicia with Silas.

Thoughts: Here, we see that a wedge formed between Paul and Barnabas over John Mark. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point in his commentary on verse 37:

Yet the context shows us that the church approved of Paul’s decision. Barnabas left and sailed to Cyprus with his companion. No mention is made of the brothers, and so it seems that he left secretly, without saying good-bye. But the brothers in their prayers commended Paul to God’s grace, thus indicating that the church was on his side.

Calvin’s thoughts are certainly debatable. In any event, I ponder the following questions. What were John Mark’s thoughts and emotions when Paul and Barnabas parted ways? What happened to Barnabas and John Mark after they sailed to Cyprus? Did they preach the Gospel message with great success? Did Barnabas meet Paul before he passed away, and if so, did they forgive each other? I anticipate meeting Paul and Barnabas in the next life and discussing this episode with them.

The Council’s Letter to Gentile Believers September 9, 2016

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Here are my thoughts on Acts 15:22-35.

Summary: In this passage, the apostles and elders in Jerusalem composed a letter to all Gentile believers where they stated their decision concerning the relationship between salvation and the Mosaic law (as described in the preceding passage). They assigned Judas and Silas to join Paul and Barnabas in delivering that letter to Antioch in Syria. The Gentile believers in Antioch – with much encouragement from Judas and Silas – responded positively to the apostles’ decision. Paul and Barnabas continued to teach and encourage these Gentile believers.

Thoughts: Here, we see that the apostles and elders sent Judas and Silas to Antioch to reinforce the decision in their letter. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point in his commentary on verse 32:

These two brothers were sent to confirm what the letter said and to add to it; otherwise, the apostles would not have sent such a short letter about such an important matter. Luke shows they had the gift of prophecy and edified the church generally…Luke means that they were endowed with an exceptional understanding of the mysteries of God, so that they were excellent interpreters of God.

I anticipate meeting Judas and Silas in the next life and learning more about them. How did they hear the Gospel message in the first place? Did they respond to the Gospel message with alacrity, or did they harbor doubts regarding its veracity? How did they assume leadership roles in the church in Jerusalem? What were their thoughts and emotions as they traveled from Jerusalem to Antioch with a letter of great import to the Gentile believers? Did the Holy Spirit enable them to anticipate the response of the Gentile believers to that letter?

The Council at Jerusalem September 2, 2016

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Here are my thoughts on Acts 15:1-21.

Summary: In this passage, several Jewish believers came to Antioch and asserted that if the Gentile believers did not obey the Mosaic law, then they were not truly saved. That assertion aroused the ire of Paul and Barnabas, who went to Jerusalem to discuss the issue with the apostles and elders. At that meeting, Peter supported the position of Paul and Barnabas by citing his recent experience with Cornelius and his relatives in Caesarea. James also supported the position of Paul and Barnabas, quoting from Amos 9:11-12 – where God asserts that He will include the Gentiles in His new spiritual kingdom. James was also keen to avoid offending the sensibilities of Jewish believers, though, and so he recommended that the Gentile believers abstain from certain practices.

Thoughts: In verse 3, we see that the believers in Phoenicia and Samaria rejoiced when they learned that many Gentiles had accepted the Gospel message. This caused me to ponder a disappointing fact: I am rarely joyful when I hear that someone has accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior. This is due – at least in part – to skepticism, as I have heard various accounts of new believers drifting away from Christianity. I sense that God is calling me to be mindful of the following truths:

  • we are not assured of our salvation until we see Him face to face
  • we should praise Him whenever the Gospel message is preached, even if those who initially accept it eventually reject it.

This passage highlights a watershed moment in the history of the early church, where it was determined that a Christian did not need to observe the Mosaic law in order to be saved. Calvin offers some thoughts on this momentous gathering in Jerusalem in his commentary on verse 12:

This is a living image of a lawful council; as soon as the truth of God comes to light, it stops all controversy. And when the Spirit presides, he is effectual enough to put an end to all disagreement, because he is able to direct the tongues of those who should be leading others, as well as to keep the rest obedient so that they are not too wedded to their own wills, but will lay aside their stubbornness and obey God.

The idea that one needed to obey the Mosaic law in order to be a genuine Christian is one of the earliest – if not the earliest – heresies in the church; Gentile believers through the ages should be grateful to God and His good work through the apostles and elders in Jerusalem in this instance. Indeed, when we ponder the entirety of the Mosaic law – especially the two greatest commandments, which concern the heart – it is evident that even attempting to obey it would be onerous.

In verse 20, we see that James recommends that the Gentile believers abstain from four practices, including sexual immorality. Calvin offers some thoughts on James’ inclusion of sexual immorality in his recommendations:

There is a harder question here, because James seems to be counting this among things that do not matter, which they must be careful about simply in order to avoid giving offense…Moreover, I think he was not talking about fornication in general but about concubinage, which was so common as to be the rule among the Gentiles.

Interestingly, the ESV and the NASB versions of this verse reference sexual immorality and fornication, respectively. Now I think that it should have been obvious to the Gentile believers before the events of this passage that they needed to abstain from sexual immorality. In fact, I assume that Paul and Barnabas warned the believers in Antioch accordingly during their extensive stay at that church. Thus, I am eager to meet James in the next life and determine the precise meaning of this verse.