Friday, July 4

Psalm 33 (Greek and Latin 32): For the first time, the Book of Psalms uses an important expression—“new song,” shir chadash—which will later appear four more times in the Psalter and once in Isaiah: “Sing to Him a new song” (see Psalms 96:1; 98:1; 144:9; 149:1; Is. 42:10). The praise of the righteous, of the just man to whom the Lord imputes no guilt and in whose mouth is no deceit, is characterized by a particular kind of newness, of renewal, of new life, inasmuch as “He who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new’” (Rev. 21:5). The song of the believers is always a new song, because it springs from an inner divine font. It is the song of those who are born again in Christ and therefore “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). The song of the Lord’s redeemed is a new song, for they adhere to the new covenant in Christ’s blood and “serve in the newness of the Spirit” (Rom. 7:6).

All Christian praise of God is a participation in the liturgy of heaven where the saints gather in glory about the Lamb in the presence of the Throne. According to Revelation 5:9, our “new song” has to do with the opening of the seals of the great scroll by the Lamb who gave His life for our redemption: “You are worthy to take the scroll, / And to open its seals; / For You were slain, / And have redeemed us to God by Your blood.” The new song is for those who have been made “kings and priests to our God” (5:10). The new song is “the song of the Lamb” (15:3). The new song, according to Revelation 14:1–3, is sung by the redeemed as they gather about the Lamb on Mount Zion. This is the folk of whom our psalm says: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people He has chosen as His own inheritance.”

Therefore, when the present psalm summons us to the “new” praise of God, it is to a newness that will never grow old. Indeed, it will grow ever newer as, day by day, we “are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18), and our “youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Psalm 102:5).

Saturday, July 5

Acts 14:19-28: The apostolic activity in Derbe, some sixty miles east of Lystra, is not described in detail. On their return to the churches that they had earlier evangelized, the apostles endeavor to strengthen the faith of the believers, reminding them in particular that the life of the Gospel involves the mystery of the Cross.

In each place the apostles establish a local hierarchy (literally “sacred order”) to pastor the new congregations. This is the burden of the expression “appointing elders” (presbyteroi, the Greek root of the English word “priests”). We note that these men derive their pastoral authority, not from their congregations, but from the apostles themselves, who act for the Holy Spirit  (cf. 20:17; cf. Titus 1:5). Having done this, the apostles reverse their steps back to Antioch in Syria, the church that had sent them out on mission (13:3).

Thus ends Paul’s “first missionary journey” in the year 48. In Antioch the apostles give their report, using the analogy of the “open door” to describe their apostolic opportunity. It was an expression that Paul liked (1 Corinthians 16:9; 2 Corinthians 2:12). The final verse of this chapter suggests some passage of time prior to the summoning of the council in Acts 15.

During the two years or so that Paul and Barnabas have been away on mission, things have not been idle back at Antioch and Jerusalem. It is clear that a crisis has been building with respect to the Church’s relationship to the Mosaic Law and Jewish institutions generally. The sorts of resistance that Paul met at the various local synagogues during the journey were typical of the emotions and motives involved in this crisis.  Prior to the next missionary journey, there will have to be some practical resolution to the question about the Christian Church’s relationship to the Law. Specifically, with the great increase among Gentile believers, the question of the obligation of the Law on the Christian conscience will have to be addressed.

Sunday, July 6

Acts 15:1-12: The time has come to address the question that has been nagging the Christian Church since the conversion of Cornelius in Chapter 10: Are Gentile Christians obliged to observe the Mosaic Law? Or, put another way, must one become a Jew in order to become a Christian? This is a question of great moment for those many Jewish Christians who gladly accept the Gospel as the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel, but who find in the Gospel itself no warrant for the abrogation of the Law.

It is the Law, after all, that separates God’s chosen people from the other peoples of the earth. It is the observance of the Law that makes Israel a holy people. If the Gospel involves the dissolution of the Law, then does it not simply subvert the notion of a chosen people? This is a very serious question for Jews who believe in Jesus. Are they now simply to be like everyone else in the world? Of course not, they know, but how is this distinctiveness and consecration of a chosen people to be reconciled with holding communion with Gentiles who do not observe the Law?

It is to address this dilemma in a practical way that this first “council” of the Christian Church is convened halfway through the Book of Acts. It is at this council that the Church takes a first official, formal step toward becoming an institution recognizably distinct from Judaism. In his description of this council, Luke mentions Peter and the original apostles for the last time. The council’s final voice will be that of James, “the brother of the Lord,” who pastors the Church at Jerusalem.

The rest of the Book of Acts will be devoted to the apostle Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles, which benefits from the council’s authorization. This authorization touches two practical questions in particular: circumcision and the dietary laws. In respect to both of these points the council decides that Gentile Christians are under no obligation of discipline. The decision is entirely practical. A more general and theoretical treatment of the Church’s relationship to Judaism will require more time and reflection.

Monday, July 7

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 may 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 retrictions 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).

Tuesday, July 8

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 this question 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.

Wednesday, July 9

Acts 16:1-15: We are now introduced to the important New Testament character, Timothy. What sort of man was Timothy? Well, we know what Paul thought of him. He told the Macedonians, “I have no one like-minded, who will sincerely care for your state” (Philippians 2:20), and went on to speak of his “proven character” (2:22). Indeed, Paul refers to Timothy as “our brother” (2 Corinthians 1:1; Colossians 1:1; 1 Thessalonians 3:2; Philemon 1), “as a son with his father” (Philippians 2:22), and “my beloved and faithful son in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 4:17). Paul addresses him, moreover, as “son Timothy” (1 Timothy 1:18), “Timothy, a true son in the faith” (1:2), and “Timothy, a beloved son” (2 Timothy 1:2).

Paul knew that Timothy had been raised in a devout, believing family (2 Timothy 1:5), where he was trained in the Holy Scriptures (3:15).

Still young, Timothy joins Paul’s company during the second missionary journey (Acts 16:1–3)—today’s text–and remains with him through the ensuing years, carefully following his “doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra” (2 Timothy 3:10–11).

Along the way, Paul finds that he can entrust Timothy with important responsibilities in the ministry. The young man will not have been a missionary even a year before Paul sends him from Athens to Thessaloniki for a needed pastoral visit (1 Thessalonians 3:1–5). Later, from Ephesus, Paul will send Timothy to visit the Macedonians (Acts 19:22; Philippians 2:19–23) and the quarrelsome, spiteful congregation at Corinth (1 Corinthians 4:17; 16:10). It will be to Timothy, finally, that Paul writes the last letter of his life, asking him to “be diligent to come to me quickly” (2 Timothy 4:9).

Thursday, July 10

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 things 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 11

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 on July 17, 1973, but in recent years it has not been open for the public to enter. 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 would have been prohibitive, especially in the middle of the night. This seems, therefore, to have been one of those occasions where the baptism was done by the 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, 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).