Lesson 2: From Jerusalem to Rome

So far we are just setting the stage for Paul, reminding ourselves what the church was like before him. This gives us some time to register and make some initial comments as we adjust to the technology of an online course. Once we get to his letters, the ideas fly, and the real blogging should begin.

In the first lesson I remarked that Acts literally follows the missionary journeys on the road from Jerusalem to Rome. That is not totally accurate. The writer of Acts is writing a history, in his mind THE history, of the Gospel’s spread. A history always includes interpretation as well as report of events. We know there were many other missionaries out there. In a sense, there was a lot of traffic on the road. Yet Acts speaks as if only the work of James, Peter, and Paul are really important, and in the end he endorses Paul’s version of the Gospel. Although Paul does not enter the development until Acts 9, by chapter 13 he is taking over. James and Peter fade out of the picture. The rest of Acts reports his three missionary journeys and a final trip under arrest to Rome. That last trip covers chapters 20-28, a fourth of the book. If we only had Acts, we would never know Peter also made it to Rome.

The Gospel remains stable throughout Acts. The sermons from beginning to end are pretty much “You executed Jesus of Nazareth as an enemy of God and humanity. But God resurrected him to proclaim he is truly his Messiah, his Christ. Now God has exalted him and authorized him to continue acting on his behalf. He is sending to us the Holy Spirit shared by God and himself.” The appropriate responses are consistent as well: “Repent, believe the Gospel, be baptized, and receive the Holy Spirit”. However, the understanding of community, the requirements for membership, and the accepted life styles are continually changing. All the early Christians were practicing Jews, who even offered sacrifices at the temple. By the time Acts is finished, the majority seem to be Gentiles who observe none of the Jewish ritual or dietary laws.

The writer pictures the first church gathered in Jerusalem around the apostles. In his first chapter he seems to define “Apostle” as one who had traveled with Jesus in his ministry and received a resurrection appearance. Yet the leader of that first Church was James, Jesus’ brother, who comes out of nowhere. The four gospels do not even mention him, instead implying that Jesus’ siblings ask him to return to his carpenter’s bench. James led a Jewish sect, the Way, which proclaimed the crucified Jesus was the Messiah or Christ for whom some Jews waited. Acts 2:42-47 carefully describes that sect. They obviously tried to live as Jesus’ small band lived. They were family who took from all according to their abilities and gave to all according to their needs.

As Bob Nordvall noted in his comment, chances are we would have remained a Jewish sect except for the series of events Acts reports. First Hellenists, more properly labeled Jewish Hellenist Christians, become prominent members. These were Jews who practiced some Greek and Roman customs, perhaps in order to do business in the empire. (Acts 6: 1-6). When the new office of deacon was established, all its members had Greek names, so we can assume they were Hellenists. One of them, Stephen, became the first martyr. These Hellenists soon became too much for the Jewish groups, who threw them out of Jerusalem. Notice that the Jewish Christians remain. (Acts 8:1). These Hellenists eventually established headquarters at Antioch from where they sent out missionaries, including Paul. (Acts 13:2, 3) It was there that we were first called “Christian”. (Acts 11:26)

We have already begun Acts’ list of “firsts”: the first Hellenists, the first deacons, the first martyr. The list continues with the first Samaritan (Acts 8: 14-17) and the first God-fearer (Acts 8:26-40). A God-fearer was a Gentile who worshiped the Hebrew God but under special limitations. For instance, they were restricted to certain areas of the temple. It happened to be the area where the money changers set up shop, so Jesus’ cleansing of the temple was to reclaim their place of worship. Next we have the first Gentiles (Acts 10, 11) And eventually we have the first disciples of John the Baptist (Acts 18-24-19:7) and the first Europeans. (Acts 16:6-14) Then as now you can usually count on writers using “first” place in any list to show the item’s importance. It is not a small matter that the first European was a woman, Lydia (Acts 16: 6-15).

The writer makes clear this is not human planning. At each stage there are signs that the Holy Spirit is leading the way. For instance in Acts 10:44 Gentiles speak in tongues on hearing the Gospel, forcing Peter to respond with “Can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Or again when the God-fearer, an Ethiopian eunuch, hears the Gospel in Acts 8, he asks, “See here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?” And Philip, a Hellenist, cannot refuse. At other times, a vision points the direction God wants or an amazing event changes the agenda. Rescue from ship wreck or release from jail is interpreted as God’s direction. Acts implies that humans simply cannot refuse to follow the Spirit’s direction. Or maybe it is more correct to say some cannot do otherwise.

It is clear Acts is giving more than an itinerary, more than a report of events. The events he chooses to report and the meaning he attaches to them are his reasons for writing. Of course, biblical writing always is offering the Church-certified interpretation of events. That is not to say that there are no other sacred writings out there or other useful interpretations. It is only to recognize that the Church has come to regard these as the standards for all the others.

Read Acts 8-11 before Friday’s lesson, which will focus on the importance of Paul’s call on the Road to Damascus. Again read long portions quickly. However, you might want to give more time to the call in Acts 9.

Let me suggest some of you respond to Matt Pensinger’s post in Lesson 1. It seems to me his observations might apply to Acts as well as later history. In responding, you’ll begin to see how the threads of the blogging work. We can have a number of themes in response to each lesson and the thread should separate them.

I think you might also want to get into the discussion in the “Frontline Devotions” link under “Age of the Spirit”. Anne Crawford asks a very important question which I hear as “How do we see the Holy Spirit operating in our time?” Don Kress offers an answer. We should be discussing this one throughout the whole class. Bob Nordvall’s comment in the “Introduction” actually gives perspective on this topic as well, suggesting in the end we should be asking, “What does all this mean here and now?”

How about everyone introducing themselves on the “Introduction” comment? I’ll keep that on the home page so we can return to it when we want to remember who someone is. Some of you placed an introduction under “Lesson 1” It would help if you would do it again in the “Introduction”. That way I do not have to figure out how to move it.

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