The Acts of the Apostles (a title not given in the text) is a continuation of the Gospel of Luke and covers the years spanning 33 to 63 A.D. It begins with a brief discussion of the final events of Jesus’ time on earth, but that will not be covered here since it was done in the combined commentary on the Gospels. As was expected for a qualified writer or historian of the time, Luke does not merely record data (accurate though it was) but also draws the reader into the accounts with great literary skill. He includes himself when applicable, showing his first-hand knowledge of many events. But while some may classify Acts as more biography than history, it nonetheless has all the required elements for historical record, including many references to verifiable people, places, and times.
Approximately the first 1/3 to 1/2 of the book covers the birth, establishment, and early growth of the Congregation. The rest revolves largely around the three missionary journeys of Paul, which helps to give more context to his letters.
While the disciples waited for the Comforter promised by Jesus, Peter determined that the traitor Judas had to be replaced. Acts 1:18–19 does not conflict with the account in Mat. 27:5 concerning the death of Judas. The two accounts paint a picture of the priests buying the field after Judas apparently did a poor job of hanging himself. The key in the current passage is “in fact/indeed”, which in conjunction with the other account can be taken as “in reality” or “indirectly”. It was the priests who called it “blood money” and then used it to buy the land as a place to bury strangers.
The criterion for Judas’ replacement was that the person had to have been with them the whole time Jesus was there, from his immersion by John to his ascension. Some say Peter acted presumptuously because Paul would be the eventual replacement, but Paul did not meet this requirement. Not all Ambassadors (apostles) were of the Twelve; we know from the Gospels that there were at least seventy. And no one, not even Paul, took issue with this decision.
The promised Comforter came on the day of Pentecost in a very obvious and unmistakable way: what looked like tongues of fire landed on the disciples, who then began to declare the Gospel in foreign languages they had not learned. Such signs and miracles are the divine stamp of approval on a major change of ages or conditions. They are not, however, the norm for all believers of all time; this book of Acts is the time of establishment and transition, not the norm. We must keep this in mind when we encounter later instances of such things, as they did not happen in one day.
Some actually take the accusation by part of the crowd that day, that the disciples were drunk, as justification for the modern phenomenon of being “drunk in the Spirit”. But the disciples were not stumbling around, acting like fools, or slurring their speech. The only reason they were accused of drunkenness is because they were speaking various languages, and whatever wasn’t a person’s particular language would sound like gibberish. And not only were the disciples not acting drunk, they were also not acting like animals or shaking uncontrollably, as is common among demonic phenomena in other religions and fringe groups claiming to be Christian.
This is when Peter gave his famous speech. But an often-overlooked point is that he was speaking exclusively to a crowd of people who already believed in the one, true God, but who had crucified their own Messiah. They did not need to be told who God was, yet they still needed to be saved; they needed to “repent” (to turn around and go the other way). This was not for the usual personal sins as most presume today, but for the particular sin of rejecting their Messiah. As for Peter telling them to be immersed, this was the custom of the time for anyone making a public declaration, religious or political; even Pilate washed his hands to signify his public declaration of innocence.
But what of Peter quoting the prophet Joel? Clearly not all of the prophecy was fulfilled that day, as there were no cosmic signs “before the day of the majestic appearing of the Master”. This is another indication that the disciples expected the prophecies of the end to come immediately, but which they would later conclude was not the case. Yet it is also another partial fulfillment of prophecy, as was also the case with the Messiah having fulfilled only some of them. But the rest of it was being fulfilled: the Spirit was being pour out– and not just on males. The inclusion of the “daughters” prophesying cannot simply be brushed aside.
The new Congregation was formed from those who changed their minds about Jesus and accepted him. Though still practicing Judaism during this time of transition, they formed a unique community of people joyfully helping each other. But this was not communism, where everyone is forced by a regulating body to “share” everything. Rather, participation was strictly voluntary and motivated from within each person. All were equal spiritual infants in the kingdom of heaven, so they all heeded “the teachings of the Ambassadors”.
Some say that the reference to prayers and breaking bread necessarily means what became known as a Communion service or Eucharist. But the context seems to refer to what people did every day: share meals, as they shared everything else. Paul would later advise people on how meals of remembrance were to be conducted– not to give a liturgy or ritualistic instructions, but to keep to the general principle, “Whatever you do, honor Jesus in it”.
As mentioned concerning ways in which God designates a change of ages or conditions, miracles were common at first, especially as performed by the Ambassadors. And just as they did with Jesus, the religious leaders opposed them, and they ordered them to stop teaching people that Jesus was the Anointed. This led to the well-known situation where Peter and John were commanded by the Sanhedrin to stop speaking about Jesus, and Peter told them they were not to be obeyed since they were opposed to God. This not only showed the fearlessness of the once-cowardly disciples, but also established the principle that societal authorities are not to be obeyed in cases where human law clashes with divine law. Nothing Paul ever said contradicted this.
And as mentioned concerning the way people took care of each other, the famous incident with Ananias and Sapphira confirms voluntary wealth distribution. They tried to pass themselves off as having given the total proceeds from the sale of land to be given to the poor, but they kept some of it for themselves. As Peter explained, they were under no obligation to give the whole amount anyway. But the punishment for “lying to the Holy Spirit” (evidence of the Spirit as a Person of the Trinity) was instant death. This seems overly harsh to us today, of course. But just as miracles accompany such changes of ages, so also do punishments. The rules God had made for the nation of Israel had the purpose of purifying and separating a people from whom the Savior would come, and now also the Congregation needed to be established in purity. And that result was achieved: people feared and respected the name of Jesus.
In another parallel with the life of Jesus, the disciples were arrested by the religious leaders, but “gently” so as to keep the crowds from rioting. Yet after the disciples were miraculously released from jail, they were re-arrested and told yet again to stop talking about Jesus. One marvels at the capacity of the religious leaders to ignore the clear hand of God and focus entirely on keeping their positions of power and privilege. And again the disciples declared their higher allegiance to God than to people. In this we also see a partial fulfillment of what Jesus predicted about being made to stand before authorities and being given the words to say by the Holy Spirit.
The earliest believers did indeed share everything, but as Israelis they were taught from their earliest youth to be separate from Gentiles. But this was not to be the case for long. In the first test showing them what Paul would later say in Gal. 3:28 about the absence of divisions in the Body of Christ, the Greek widows were being discriminated against and complained to the Ambassadors. So they set up a group of people to ensure that the sharing of food was fair and non-discriminatory. These are typically cited as the first “deacons”, but this is never referred to in any subsequent scriptures on the selection of such people. This was a specific response to a specific problem at a specific time and in a specific location. Otherwise, we would have to have a rule that “deacons” must be seven in number, and that their job is to give food to Greek widows; one cannot choose only part of this incident as binding.
The reason the word diaconos was chosen at all was to compare it to what the Ambassadors were doing, which was spiritual service. Just as a literal diaconos waited tables, so also the Ambassadors were “waiting tables” in a spiritual and figurative sense. But people like to inject hierarchy into every appointment, so tradition quickly turned these “domestics” into bosses with spiritual authority over others. And this is not excused by the stated requirements for the job; one must have the heart and attitude of a servant of Jesus before presuming to serve his followers. We should expect to find the most spiritually-filled people at the lowest places, just as Jesus taught. In fact, one of them would be the first of Jesus’ followers to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Stephen was respected by the people, not only for performing signs and miracles, but also for his skill in debating critics of the faith. We need to keep this in mind when reading other scriptures which some take to mean believers (especially leaders) must not argue (see also the letter of Jude re. “contending for the faith”). We remember that Jesus did a fair amount of debate as well.
As for Stephen’s long speech when he was arrested and stood before the Sanhedrin, somehow his having the appearance of a Messenger made no difference to the religious leaders when he reached the surprise ending. In a fit of rage, they killed him by stoning, while Saul (the future Paul) watched and approved. It was this execution that gave him a taste for more and sent him on his fateful quest to rid the earth of these pesky Jesus followers.
If the command of Jesus to “go into all the world” wasn’t enough, persecution would be. People tend to not shift places until forced to, and the young Congregation was no exception. They were still in an all-Israeli mindset of separation and needed a push to take another step away from it. This persecution was also another way in which the women in the Congregation were treated no differently than the men, as Saul hauled off all of them to jail and death. This is corroborated by extra-Biblical writings as well; many forgotten martyrs and victims of torture were women. Surely those who suffer and die for the Anointed are qualified to lead and serve for him as well. But this plan of the enemies of the faith backfired; the scattering of the disciples caused the Gospel to be spread farther and faster than it might have otherwise.
A well-known incident involved the disciple Philip, one of whose apparent converts was a practitioner of magic arts named Simon. But when Peter arrived, he found out that people were only immersed in the name of Jesus and not the Holy Spirit. This can be puzzling in light of the fact that nowhere in scripture is it taught that a believer is not truly saved until an Ambassador places hands on them and immerses them in the Holy Spirit. One explanation is that the Ambassadors expected a dramatic sign every time, as on Pentecost. Another is that this was necessary to validate the salvation of non-Israelis such as the despised Samaritans. Still another is that this is a special immersion which must precede the other sign gifts.
That last explanation is perhaps the most likely. When Simon saw this spectacular spiritual manifestation, he wanted to purchase this apparent magical power, for which Peter sternly rebuked him. Yet the wording there is not that people were being filled with the Spirit in a special way, but that they received the Spirit. But this may fit the other explanation about the early believers thinking that these spectacular signs were required of everyone. Yet again, this was not consistent; not all are recorded as having had visible tongues of fire descend upon them, or that they spoke in unlearned languages. In this case we are not told the details. It may very well be an exclusive requirement for Israelis or proselytes to Judaism, who already believed in the one true God.
These questions and examples are why we look to “the teachings of the Ambassadors” and not just anecdotal evidence, when it comes to essentials of the faith. Of all the teachings that should be the clearest, it would be salvation itself. And in those teachings (the Letters) we see nothing at all about salvation requiring the laying on of hands, or the manifestation of sign gifts.
When Philip later met up with an Ethiopian official, he immersed him in water to signify his acceptance of the faith, though that has to be implied from the text. Yet there was no laying on of hands or mention of a sign gift being manifest by the Ethiopian. This person was likely already a proselyte since he was reading the prophecy of Isaiah, so we might have expected such things. It is possible they happened and were simply not mentioned, but this seems unlikely since they were recorded in so many other cases. So here again there is inconsistency, which should tell us not to derive doctrine from these incidences. We can note as well that in this case the immerser was “snatched away”, teleported to another city– a very uncommon event to say the least.
There are several reports of the conversion of Saul. One of them, Acts 9:7, states that the others traveling with Paul heard a voice but saw no one, while Acts 22:9 states that they saw a light but did not understand the sound (there is scholarly debate on whether they did not hear any sound at all, or simply did not understand it, based on the Greek grammar). Yet none of this is contradictory; seeing a light is not the same as seeing Jesus himself, and there is no irrefutable proof that the voice was understood. The same is true for one account having more detail than the other. And had all instances been identical, one would rightly suspect a made-up story; people often add or omit detail upon later tellings of an experience.
Curiously, there is no account of Saul actually making a statement of faith, though no one doubts his salvation. Ananias, who came to place hands on Saul to restore his sight, is also not recorded as having said anything else but that Saul would receive the Holy Spirit. And it is after all this that he was immersed– without any manifestation or other sign gift. While we may be able to dismiss the lack of such information for the Ethiopian, we are hard-pressed to do the same for Saul/Paul.
No sooner had Paul been saved than he began to proclaim the Gospel, followed almost immediately by persecution. Even so, other believers had a difficult time believing that their former enemy had become one of them. This is one bit of evidence out of many which refutes the claim that Paul remained a Jesus-hating Pharisee and was a false teacher, as modern-day Judaizers claim. Though he did refer to himself as still a Pharisee on some occasions, he was clearly a radically changed man who suffered much for the name of Jesus.
Peter, like all the others, still saw the faith as primarily Hebrew. This is understandable since, as far as they knew, the prophecies would continue unhindered, and there was no hint in their scriptures about any other Congregation besides Israel. But then he had a vision wherein God used unclean animals as an object lesson to prepare him for a visit from Cornelius, a godly Gentile. It was not until he arrived at Cornelius’ home that he finally understood that this new Congregation was inclusive of all people.
But he was interrupted in his speech by the familiar sign gift of speaking in unlearned languages, evidence of the Gentiles being immersed in the Holy Spirit. And we must note that this preceded their being immersed in water, with no mention of Peter laying hands on any of them. As Peter then explained to those who were upset with him for entering a Gentile home and sharing a meal with them, this manifestation proved beyond doubt that Gentiles were not to be excluded or kept separate.
Though this section requires little comment beyond the title, there is a statement made about a collection for famine relief that many take out of context. The people were warned of an impending famine, so they set aside funds for the believers in Judea “in proportion to how each had prospered”. This is interpreted by some as an endorsement of tithing. Yet as was the case with the “deacons” of chapter six, this was a particular situation and time, and a one-off collection. As for “prospered”, this refers to profit/increase or having excess, not income from wages or salaries. The poor are not to support other poor people; this is the responsibility of the well-off. Anyone can give according to their conscience of course, and some, as Paul would later remark, do give beyond their means. But this is giving, a voluntary act, not a legalistic tithe.
It seems that Herod had the same problem as the religious leaders when it came to imprisoning disciples of Jesus. But being a despot, someone else had to pay for Peter’s miraculous escape, so he had innocent guards put to death. But God finally had enough of Herod and put him to a gruesome death himself.
Once again Paul speaks boldly about the Jesus he had formerly persecuted, and once again the Judeans are envious and oppose him, so once again the seeds are scattered even more. When Paul miraculously healed someone in Lystra, the people decided that Paul was the god Hermes and Barnabas was Zeus. But not long after they tried to offer them sacrifices, agitators came and turned them quickly into a murderous mob. They had left Paul for dead, but he got up as if nothing had happened. Then before leaving the area, they appointed elders for the local Congregations. Elders were guardians and teachers, not bosses.
The belief of some who had been Pharisees, that even Gentile converts to Christianity must follow the laws of Moses, led to a meeting in Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas reported all that God had been doing among the Gentiles, and there was a long debate. Finally Peter and James came to a decision, and what each of them said raises some important points.
Peter described the laws of Moses as “a burden neither we nor our ancestors could bear”. Some claim he meant the corrupt traditions of the Pharisees, yet Peter refers to the ancestors. While technically this could apply to the time those traditions were developed during the Babylonian captivity, it is a stretch to think Peter would refer to those ancestors and that corrupt law. Who would even think about putting Gentiles under mere traditions? And remember that the passage began with a reference to Moses, not to the Talmud. The specific law the Pharisees wanted kept was that of circumcision, which is clearly part of the laws of Moses.
Then James added a reference to prophecy and the first clear identification of the Congregation in the OT: Amos 9:11–12, which refers to a time when God would include the Gentiles and then “turn back and rebuild David’s fallen sanctuary”. Now the Congregation understands that God is turning his attention to the Gentiles, though not forever. This is also a good rebuttal to the claim of Replacement Theology, that God is finished with Israel (or that the Gentile believers must come under the laws of Moses). All James asks is that the Gentiles show some sensitivity to those who are going through a difficult time of transition. It is likely that he had penned his Letter before this meeting.
After the decision of the Council, one may be surprised to read that Paul had Timothy circumcised. But the reason is given: “on account of the Judeans in the area”. As Paul would later say, “circumcision doesn’t matter” (Gal. 5:6), and he wanted no more trouble than necessary. As for Lydia, she was a prominent businesswoman, and Paul did not hesitate to meet with the women for prayer. She was receptive to the Gospel, and “she and her household” were saved. This phrase, and the one following where she invites them into her (rather than her husband’s) home, clearly portray Lydia as the head of her household.
Apollo was the twin of Artemis (we will encounter this pagan goddess again later in the book), and his earthly oracle was to be a maiden (later, a woman over 50) called the Pythia (python). After pestering Paul and Silas for too long, Paul exorcised the demon that had been giving her prophetic powers. But her handlers realized that this meant the end of their lucrative business. So they made up false charges against Paul and Silas, which resulted in a severe whipping and jail. Once again there was a miraculous escape, but not a quiet one as had been the case for Peter. As they were singing (!) there was a violent earthquake which opened all the prison doors. This is where we meet the famous jailer who asked how to be saved, and the simple reply was for him to put his trust in Master Jesus. Some stumble over the addition of “and your household”, but this hardly means that the family did not have to have faith but were forced to believe as the head of the house (see related comments on Lydia). The text states that the Word of the Master was spoken to all of them.
The next day, the officials tried to get Paul and Silas released quietly, but Paul would have none of it. He demanded justice, which some believers today would think is wrong for a Christian. And he used his Roman citizenship to his advantage, though no one doubts the evil of the Roman government.
The most notable incident in this section is the contrast between the people of Thessalonica and Berea. Rather than reacting with emotion upon hearing new ideas, they turned to the scriptures to cross-examine what Paul was saying, which Luke cites as an example of “noble character”. This is an important lesson for us today: not only must we restrain our reactions and know the scriptures, we must also not blindly swallow what we may hear from preachers and teachers but put them under scrutiny. This is how discernment is practiced, and it supports the use of “old books” to determine spiritual truth.
In the account of Paul in Athens, we are given an example of how to present the Gospel to people without knowledge of the one true God. Unlike the message of Peter to Israel on Pentecost, the message Paul brought to the Athenians was simply to appeal to the evidence of the resurrection of Jesus. He did not dangle sinners over the flames of hell, or demand personal confessions and repentance, but only presented this evidence as proving which God was the true one. Some mistakenly interpret this approach as Paul accepting and affirming their pantheism. But clearly he was using it as a “hook” or lead-in to present a new idea to them. Their shrine to The Unknown God was the perfect opportunity to introduce them to him.
Paul met these two due to them all being in the tent-making trade, and they formed a business partnership. This is one example of Paul earning his own wages, and it was not until others arrived that he was able to go back to proclaiming the Gospel full-time. He was run out of town as usual, but later met up with Priscilla and Aquila, who traveled with him.
In Ephesus, Priscilla and Aquila found the eloquent and educated Apollos proclaiming the immersion of John, so they took him aside and told him “the rest of the story”. Note that it was not just the man doing the teaching, and he is in no way portrayed as either leading or supervising the teaching of his wife. This only needs to be said due to the efforts of some today to shoehorn male oversight into every corner of scripture.
In Corinth there was another instance of the sign gift of speaking in unlearned languages, after which Paul spent two years debating in a public hall. Debate, like demanding justice, is another activity in which, according to some today, Christians should not engage. Yet it was these debates which caused the Gospel to spread all around that region.
But it is always the spectacular gifts that draw in the fakes and impostors. Some local exorcists took it upon themselves to mimic the words of Paul and try them out on a demon-possessed man. But the demon said something very interesting before beating the impostors to a pulp: “I know Jesus and Paul, but who are you?” For the Christian, miracles are not performed by magic words and incantations, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, and evil spirits know this. And this incident put such fear of God into the people that they publicly burned their magic books worth millions of today’s dollars.
Where there is a good reputation there is also often a bad one, and this was to surround Paul wherever he went. In Ephesus he drew the negative attention of an influential silversmith named Demitrius, head of a trade guild making shrines for their goddess. They stirred up a mob which then spent two hours chanting mindlessly to her. But an official finally got them to calm down, and he used the threat of the Roman government charging them with rioting to convince them to disband.
Paul gave one last long speech before leaving the area, and this is where we read the account of the young man he lulled to sleep with all that speaking. The youth fell out of the window he had fallen asleep next to and was killed, but Paul raised him back to life. Then he met with the elders of the local Congregation, and as noted before, there were several of them and not one “head elder” with “associate elders” as tradition has had it.
In his advice to the elders, Paul indicated that they were shepherds and guardians with serious responsibilities. And the danger they were to guard against was the eventual arising of “wolves” from among them, who would ravage the flock. This was bound to happen practically as soon as Paul turned his back, and history shows the tragic accuracy of that prediction. According to noted historian Philip Schaff in History of the Christian Church, § 42, Clergy and Laity, this process of transforming the Congregation from organism to organization began in the second century a.d. Control-seeking people formed a hierarchy, turning Jesus’ command for the greatest to be the least on its head.
One largely ignored fact about Philip is that his four unmarried daughters were prophets. This defies two popular claims: that the highest calling of all women is marriage and motherhood, and that women cannot be prophets as men are. It also fulfills what Peter quoted from Joel on Pentecost. There is no qualifying or excusing or exception-granting here, either expressed or implied. Had they been sons instead, no one would question their gifting or sphere of service.
People have an uncanny ability to jump to wild conclusions, and then use those conclusions to hate and murder. They took Paul’s sincere effort to keep from causing offense and turned it into a crime worthy of death. But yet again, Paul uses his Roman citizenship to demand justice for being hauled off to jail and punishment without having been given a fair trial. And when he was stood before the Sanhedrin, he used his being a Pharisee to divide the council. But this whole charade would turn out to spread the Gospel even farther, and to allow Paul to testify before kings.
Paul’s enemies, not content with law or justice, conspired to ambush Paul on his way to Governor Felix, a trip they had convinced the legion commander to arrange. But due to the bravery of a young boy who found out about the plot, all the conspirators accomplished was further trouble for themselves. They may have thought they could pull the same move as they had done to Jesus, but they did not have the same amount of leverage on Felix and the rest as they had with Pilate.
The prosecution spoke first, and then Paul spoke in his own defense. Felix, though well-versed in Judean affairs, exhibited little interest in the case beyond hoping Paul would offer him a bribe— as if this tentmaker was carrying around a lot of spare cash. This hope of bribery would also help explain why Festus allowed the case to remain open for two years, though as stated he mainly wanted to please the Judeans.
When Felix was succeeded by Festus, the Judeans tried the ambush ploy again, but Festus did not immediately grant their request to have Paul transferred. When the trial resumed, Festus asked Paul if he would be willing to face trial in Jerusalem, but Paul once again appealed to his rights under established Roman law. So he made a formal appeal to Ceasar, which Festus granted. Then it was King Agrippa’s turn to hear the case, because Festus needed to specify the precise charge to justify sending the case to Caesar. And though Agrippa agreed that Paul was not guilty and should be released, the appeal to Caesar could not be withdrawn. Paul had been told in an earlier vision that he must go to Rome, and his accusers were the unwitting tools by which God brought that to pass.
Reading the account of Paul’s trip to Rome, one might speculate that malevolent spiritual forces did not want him to testify before Caesar. The most familiar part of the trip was the shipwreck at the island of Melita. The residents saw Paul shake off a deadly snake bite and suffer no ill effects, which some try to dismiss as ignorance. But this is presumptuous and merely argued from a disbelief in miracles– even by people who accept that Jesus rose from the dead. Yet Paul went on to heal the people of the island, which resulted in the ability to continue the trip in spite of the loss of everything but the passengers.
Considering the odds against their reaching Rome at all, we should not be surprised that Paul was given comfortable living quarters there. He expected to encounter the same opposition from the local Judeans as always, but they had heard nothing about him. He stayed there for two years, continuing to proclaim the Gospel. And at that point his story ends, without any comment about his trial before Caesar or his death. Tradition has it that Paul was beheaded in Rome while Nero was Caesar, sometime in the mid-60s a.d.