Monday, May 31, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: Acts 17-21

For my own personal study, I am using a combination of tools. These include listening to an audio version of the Bible (TNIV) and a series of commentaries in addition to the text itself. I recognize that not everyone will have access to these materials. I can at least provide a link to the Biblical text itself. For this purpose, I've found that is a very useful tool. Not only does it include the TNIV, which enables me to link to the same text as what I'm listening to with the audio version, but one can easily switch to another translation (if one so desires) simply by using the drop-down menus. I hope that this is helpful.

This week, I am working through Acts, chapters 17-21.

Chapter 17

  • Verse 2 - I guess "reasoning with people" doesn't constitute a violation of the Sabbath.
  • Verse 12 - Interesting that women are mentioned before men in this instance.  Williams suggests that this "probably indicates that women were especially prominent in (the Berean) church."1
  • Verses 16, 22-31 - It is often said (rightly!) that Paul wasn't afraid to use strong words when he was passionate about something.  In verse 16, we see how troubled Paul is by the idolatry in Athens.2  Yet, when he makes his speech on the Areopagus, he takes care not to be unnecessarily offensive.  "[T]he word translated 'religious'... can have either a good sense or a bad....  It is a comparative and can mean either that they were more devout than most in the practice of their religion or more superstitious.  Perhaps Paul deliberately chose the word with kindly ambiguity so as not to offend his hearers while, at the same time, expressing to his own satisfaction what he thought of their religion.  They would learn soon enough what his opinion really was."3 Folks who know me, or who have followed this blog, already know that I strongly believe that Christians should exercise greater discernment in this area, causing less offense and tailoring arguments to specific audiences in order to be more reliably understood.
Chapter 18
  • Verse 6 - An example of Paul using clearly combative language (so quickly after the speech at the Areopagus, too!).  This kind of thing (whereby Paul promises to preach to the Gentiles after being rebuffed by the Jews) has happened already just  a few chapters ago, and Paul seems to be referencing the local situation each time, as opposed to stating his intention on a wider scale, as we will see Paul preach to Jews again in the future.4
  • Verses 12-17 - Gallio may say something that helps out Paul here, but he certainly doesn't come off very well by the end of this passage.  Unfortunately, Luke is less than clear about exactly what has happened and why.  Who is the "the crowd" that attacks the synagogue leader, Sosthenes, and why?  Was it an anti-Semitic crowd acting out against a prominent Jew because they know Gallio is unlikely to do anything about it?  Was it a group of Jews attacking a synagogue leader with potentially pro-Christian (or perhaps insufficiently anti-Christian) leanings?5  I just can't tell.
  • Verse 18 - Luke doesn't spell this out, but this sounds like a Nazirite vow, described in greater detail in Numbers 6:1-21.
  • Verse 24-26 - I'm curious as to what Apollos' "accurate," if not fully "adequate," teachings about Jesus were....
Chapter 19
  • Verse 2 - Paul seems to assume not only that new Christian believers will "receive the Holy Spirit" upon conversion, but that they already know what this means.  I expect that doesn't connect well with most modern experience, but I'm not sure how big of a deal I should make of that.
  • Verse 12 - An interesting description of miracle-working, on a level Jesus's own miracles were not described at.  Perhaps this is the kind of thing Jesus was referring to when he suggested that his followers would do "even greater things" than he had done?
  • Verses 13-16 - I've commented before that Jesus stressed that actions matter.  However, this passage should make clear that actions are not all-sufficient.  If it were so, invoking the name of Jesus would be a kind of magical incantation to perform amazing feats (indeed, the proximity to verse 19 would seem to indicate that this was precisely the connection Luke wanted to avoid).  Such actions, if they are not accompanied by faith in Jesus himself, are clearly not only ineffective, but may even make matters worse, as this particular example demonstrates.
  • Verses 35-41 - I'm intrigued by stories like this one.  Luke provides us with a variety of  stories of "deliverance" from difficult situations.  Some are undeniably divine, complete with earthquakes, angels, walls falling away, etc.  Others, like this one, are far more mundane.  A secular authority, who presumably has no personal connection to the Christian faith himself, quells a riot simply by appealing to reason and the rule of law.
Chapter 20
  • Verses 7-12 - I expect that anyone who's sat through a long sermon sympathizes with Eutychus..  Indeed, even Luke seems to characterize Paul as being especially long-winded here ("Paul talked on and on").  Perhaps sitting on a window-ledge three floors from the ground isn't the wisest place from which to listen to a sermon....
  • Verses 18-38 - A rather lengthy farewell speech.  I wonder if Luke is signaling to his readers that this account is nearing its climax.  (That's not to say that Paul didn't say it, but presumably he'd said farewells before this.  Why single this one out?)
Chapter 21
  • Verse 4 - This is rather surprising.  Luke tells us that the disciples of Tyre urged Paul not to go to the Jerusalem, and that they said this "through the Spirit."  Yet, elsewhere (both before and after this section), Paul's desire to go to Jerusalem is said to be motivated by the Spirit.  This seems like a contradiction.
  • Verse 8 - "The Seven" is apparently an indicator that this Philip is the same person who was one of the deacons assigned at the same time as Stephen (the first martyr).  I find it interesting that, here, Philip is called "the Evangelist" (apparently the only time in the whole Bible this term is used as a title of a specific person).6  The Seven of Acts 6 were chosen specifically so that others (namely, the apostles) could do the work of evangelism.  The Seven were given the task of caring for the needs of the Hellenistic widows (that whole "we can't be waiting on tables" bit).
  • Verse 9 - Luke takes the effort to mention Philip's daughters, and the fact that they prophesied (and the fact that they were unmarried), but nothing else seems to be made of these facts.  Indeed, although a prophesy is going to be described in the next few verses, it's someone else who does it. 
  • Verses 20-26 - Another confusing section in regard to the importance of obeying the law (at least, in regard to whether Jewish Christians, including Paul, must continue to do so).  How do we reconcile these passages with Paul's strong teachings that the law is "worthless"?
  • Verses 37-40 - Another candidate for the "why did they put the chapter breaks here?" hall of infamy.  I guess I'll get to this stuff next week.

1David J. Williams, Acts (New International Bible Commentary), Hendrickson, 1990, p. 299.
2Williams, p. 302: "...he was so greatly distressed by what he saw that he could not rest (the verb corresponds to the noun in 15:39--he suffered a paroxysm)."
3Williams, p. 304.
4See Williams, p. 315.
5I'm bouncing off of comments made in Williams, pp. 318-319.
6See Williams, p. 363.

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