Friday, July 2
Acts 14:8-18: The response of the crowd in their own native tongue indicates what we might not otherwise have known: namely, that the apostles have been preaching through an interpreter. Inasmuch as a great deal “gets lost in translation,” the crowd itself has evidently missed some of the finer points in the apostolic message—the mention of monotheism, for instance! Witnessing the miraculous healing, these enthusiasts promptly identify the apostles with pagan gods.
Their identification of Paul with Hermes, or the Latin “Mercury,” is explained in verse 12, where we learn that Paul does most of the talking. With respect to Barnabas, it is reasonable to think that his identification as Zeus, or the Latin “Jupiter” (“Zeus Pater,” or “Zeus the father”: Ziaus Pitar in Sanskrit) probably has something to do with certain physical features (great height, large head, broad shoulders, and a majestic beard over a massive chest) and a more solemn presence. (Contrast this with Paul’s physical appearance in 2 Corinthians 10:10) So Paul is Hermes the messenger; Barnabas is the strong, silent Zeus, who commands by his presence.
Historians of literature draw our attention to a parallel story of Zeus and Hermes visiting Phrygia, preserved by Ovid, Metamorphosis 8:611-628).
The very brief sermon of the apostles (verses 15-17) probably represents their typical approach to pagans outside the synagogue; it may serve as the outline to the longer sermon that Paul will give the philosophers in Athens in 17:22-31. The fickle crowd ends the story by stoning Paul, an incident he will later mention in 2 Corinthians 11:25 and 2 Timothy 3:11.
Psalm 143 (Greek and Latin 141): This psalm is a prayer of desolation and loneliness: “With my voice have I cried to the Lord, with my voice have I prayed to the Lord. Before Him will I pour out my prayer; my desolation shall I declare in His presence. Even as my spirit takes its leave of me, You are the knower of my paths. In the way wherein I walk, have they concealed a snare for me. I looked to my right hand and beheld, but no one there acknowledged me. Flight itself fled from me; there was no patron for my soul. I cried to You, O Lord, I said, ‘You are my hope, in the land of the living my inheritance.’ Attend to my entreaty, for I am greatly humbled. Deliver me from my pursuers, for they are mightier than I. From the dungeon free my soul, unto the praising of Your holy name. The righteous shall await me, until You recompense me.”
Following an impulse early found in biblical history, an unknown hand added a note to the title of this psalm, describing it as the prayer (tefilla) offered by David “when he was in the cave.” As, in his younger years, he was being pursued by Saul, David probably concealed himself in several caves, there being no shortage of them in the Judean desert. First Samuel 22 tells of his seeking refuge from Saul in “the cave of Adullam,” and two chapters later there is a dramatic description of David’s concealment from Saul in a cave near Engedi by the Dead Sea. Perhaps these are the scenes that the scribal hand intended. Anyway, it is easy to think of this psalm as inspired by such experiences in the life of David. Or to imagine David praying it later on when he was fleeing from Absalom.
Holy Scripture contains no end of stories in which this would have been an appropriate psalm to pray. One thinks of Jacob fleeing from Esau, walking alone from Beersheba up to Haran at the top of the Fertile Crescent. Such a prayer could have been made just before he laid his head on the stone at Luz: “I cried to You, O Lord, I said, ‘You are my hope, in the land of the living my inheritance.’ Attend to my entreaty, for I am greatly humbled.”
Or the mind may jump forward to his son, Joseph, sold into slavery by his own brothers, falsely accused and thrown into prison, with no friend in this world. This could be the prayer of Joseph: “I looked to my right hand and beheld, but no one there acknowledged me. Flight itself fled from me; there was no patron for my soul.”
The sentiments of this psalm fit well what we know of the prophetic career of Elijah, living in secrecy in the desert, then making the long trek down to Sinai, pursued by the forces of Jezebel, to meet the Lord at the mouth of the ancient cave: “Even as my spirit takes its leave of me, You are the knower of my paths. In the way wherein I walk, have they concealed a snare for me.”
Surely this psalm graced the lips of Jeremiah, cast into the well, and drawn out of it only to be imprisoned until the fall of Jerusalem: “From the dungeon free my soul, unto the praising of Your holy name. The righteous shall await me, until You recompense me.”
No effort is needed to hear this prayer welling up from the throat of Job, as he sat on his dung heap, bereft of every earthly consolation: “With my voice have I cried to the Lord, with my voice have I prayed to the Lord. Before Him will I pour out my prayer; my desolation shall I declare in His presence.”
When we think of those unjustly accused who may have prayed this psalm, various characters come to mind from the Book of Daniel, such as Susannah, the three youths in the furnace, and the Prophet himself. And if this psalm is a fitting supplication for those in prison, then the Prophet Micaiah and John the Baptist are to be counted among those who may have prayed it. Likewise the Apostles Peter, Paul (“in prisons more frequently”), and John.
But most of all, and adding superabundant dignity to the rest, there is Christ our Lord, the Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, abandoned by His closest friends, betrayed by one of them and denied in public by another, but finding His sole refuge in the Father.
Saturday, July 3
Acts 14:19-28: The apostolic activity in Derbe, some sixty miles east of Lystra, is now 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 4
Mark 5:1-20: Except for the Passion narratives, it is not often that several consecutive Gospel stories are tol
d in the identical order in all or even several of the Gospels. Indeed, apart from events that obviously belong near either the beginning or the end of Jesus’ earthly life, factual chronology seems not to have been of great concern to the four evangelists, and the differing positions and juxtapositions of individual stories within their Gospels seem determined less by a care for historical precision than by the literary and theological considerations that guided their minds. (Early in the second century, Papias of Hierapolis already remarked on this feature in the Gospel according to St. Mark.)
Consequently, when we find four consecutive stories told in exactly the same order in three of the Gospels, the fact is noteworthy. Indeed, in such a case we are justified in suspecting that the sequence of the narrative was determined by very early tradition, perhaps even the historical memory established by an apostolic eyewitness.
We have such an instance in the order of the following four stories: the stilling of the storm, the driving of the demons into the pigs, the healing of the woman with the blood-flow, and the raising of Jairus’s daughter. These accounts appear in each of the three Synoptic Gospels in exactly the same sequence.
The likelihood of strict chronological precision is even stronger in the sequence of the storm scene and the episode involving the demons and the pigs. Since the latter event was remembered to have taken place in Gentile territory (Jews not being permitted to tend pigs) on the east side of the Sea of Galilee, we naturally find it preceded by a boat trip to arrive at the place. Beyond simple historical sequence, however, the two narratives are appropriately juxtaposed for two other reasons:
First, both stories are concerned with the mysterious identity of Jesus in a context symbolic of baptism. The marveling apostles raise the question of Jesus’ identity in reaction to His manifest authority over the storm (Matthew 8:27; Mark 4:41; Luke 8:25), and then the demons address Him as “Son of God” (Matthew 8:29; Mark 5:7; Luke 8:28): “Who is this? The Son of God.” This combination of query and response, found in all three Synoptics, suggests that the demons themselves are answering the question that the Apostles have just asked: “Who?”
The joining of this specific doctrinal question and this specific dogmatic answer, given at the waterside, follows the ancient interrogation of the Sacrament of Baptism (cf. Acts 8:36–37, for example), which in the Church has always been prefaced by an exorcism. To this very day, when someone is presented for baptism, that person is first exorcised of demons, who are explicitly rejected, and is then asked to confess Jesus as Son of God, Savior, and Lord.
Second, the juxtaposition of these two stories suggests an imaginative analogy between the outer, physical storm on the lake and the inner, spiritual storm afflicting a tortured soul.
Both of these storms, the outer and the inner, have a “before and after.” Thus, of the first one we read, “a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat,” and then, “the wind ceased and there was a great calm” (Mark 4:37, 39). Of the second storm we are told, “he was in the mountains and in the tombs, crying out and cutting himself with stones,” and then, they “saw the one who had been demon-possessed and had the legion, sitting and clothed and in his right mind” (Mark 5:5, 15). In both cases, it is the encounter with Jesus that produces the calm. In each instance, Jesus’ command is inexorable: “Even the wind and the sea obey Him” and “Send us to the swine” (4:41; 5:12).
Prior to meeting Jesus, this poor demoniac is the very type of the lost soul, his heart and mind fractured and fragmented into thousands of warring parts. This meeting with Christ is baptismal; the demons perish in those same deluge waters from which the Church has just been delivered.
More specifically, that raging demoniac, living in Gentile territory, represented the hopeless plight of the uncovenanted Gentiles described by St. Paul: “without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of
Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). Prior to meeting Christ in the mystery of baptism, he was day and night dwelling in tomb caves, the realm of the dead, breaking iron chains with his bare hands, crying out in despair and gashing himself in anguish; it was truly the case that “he saw Jesus from afar” (makrothen—Mark 5:6). Indeed, from very far, and without hope. But even to those in such a state was St. Paul able to write, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off [makran] have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13).
Monday, July 5
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.
Tuesday, July 6
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 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 restrictions 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).
Wednesday, July 7
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.
Thursday, July 8
Acts 16:1-15: Early in this second missionary trip, Paul picks up yet another companion, young Timothy, from a family evidently converted during the earlier missionary journey (2 Timothy 1:5). As this young man matured over the next several years, Timothy would be given ever greater responsibilities in the ministry, amply justifying the reputation he already enjoyed (16:2; Philippians 2:19-20). Because Paul’s usual approach to the evangelization of any city was to start in the local synagogue, he causes Timothy to be circumcised, so that the latter’s presence in the synagogue would not be a source of scandal to the Jews (16:3). Later on, some of Paul’s critics will apparently accuse him of opportunism in t
his matter (Galatians 5:11), but his intention seems best explained by his later reflections in 1 Corinthians 9:20. Paul was unwilling to give unnecessary offense that might impede the cause of the Gospel.
Beginning in verse 10 appears the first of the “we” sections of this book, those parts written in what grammarians call the first person plural. The present “daily reflections” on the Book of Acts assume as accurate the ancient view that the “we” sections of Acts narrate those incidents and events to which the book’s author, the physician Luke, was a personal eye-witness. Thus, it appears that Luke joined Paul’s company at the coastal city of Troas, near the site of primitive Troy (16:6).
Was Luke converted during Paul’s brief sojourn at Troas, or had he already been a Christian for some time? The answer to this question should take into consideration that Luke already appears to be a mature Christian, capable of assuming difficult pastoral responsibilities. When Paul leaves Philippi only a short time later (16:40), he is able to leave Luke in charge of the new congregation in that city, where he will once again join Paul some eight years later (20:5). (Thus, it is reasonable to understand Paul’s mention of his “loyal yoke-fellow” in Philippians 4:3 as a reference to Luke, who pastored that congregation, as far as we can tell, between the years 49 and 57.)
The burden of the present reading in Acts is to show how the ministry of the apostle Paul passed from Asia to Europe (16:9-11). Thus, the last Asian city to be evangelized by Paul on this second journey was Troas, to which he would return briefly in the mid-50s (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:12). He would come back there one last time in A.D. 57, making his final journey to Jerusalem (Acts 20:5-13). When in Troas at that time, Paul will lodge with a Christian named Carpus (probably the owner of that large three-storied house described in Acts 20:8-9), at whose home he inadvertently left a cloak, some books, and some expensive parchments (2 Timothy 4:13).
In the present account we see that Paul’s initial trip to Macedonia from Troas required only two days (verse 11), a trip facilitated by the steady current that flows from the colder Black Sea, through the Dardanelles, into the warmer waters of the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean basin. Paul’s later return trip to Troas will take much longer and require either very strong favorable winds from the west or the labor of galley slaves (20:6).
Paul’s first European city, Philippi, was served by the port town of Neapolis (“new city”), the modern Kavalla. The river referred to here is the Gangites, somewhat outside the city. It was at this river that the imperial forces of Octavius and Mark Anthony had defeated the republican army of Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi in 42 B.C.
The local Jews met at this site—outside the city—for reasons to be mentioned later. It is here that Paul makes his first convert in Europe, a businesswoman from the Asian city of Thyatira, which would eventually have a Christian congregation of its own (cf. Revelation 2:24). Lydia was a "fearer of God” (verse 14), much like Cornelius in Acts 10.
Friday, July 9
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.