Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Great Books: The Acts of the Apostles (Part Seven)

Parts 1-6 of this essay can be accessed in the archive to the right of the screen under September of 2009.

After their early success at Paphos, Paul and Barnabas sailed northward to Perga, a coastal city in the region of Pamphylia. Here, the disciple John (known as Mark) mysteriously drops out of the mission and returns to Jerusalem. Luke spends only one dependent clause on the event but it figures so prominently later in the book, that it offers cause to pause and wonder why. Perhaps he was sent by the church in Judea to report on the Gentile mission as it unfolded and what he had seen in Antioch and Paphos had given him some unspecified cause for concern? Maybe he didn’t do well with sea travel?

Whatever the reason, Paul and Barnabas traveled northward from Perga to Pisidian Antioch (not to be confused with the other Antioch where the home church remained). Upon their arrival, their mission seemed at first quite peaceful. Attending the Synagogue on the Sabbath, they were invited to offer a “message of encouragement for the people” [13:15]. It is notably Paul, not Barnabas who stands to proclaim the name of Christ. Opening with a historical narrative about the Jewish people that would have been well familiar to the “Men of Israel and Gentiles who worship God” [13:16] that were his audience, Paul then unveiled his good news about Jesus.

Brothers, children of Abraham, and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to us that the message of salvation had been sent. The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath…We tell you the good news: What God has promised our fathers he has fulfilled for us, their children by raising up Jesus…Therefore my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses. [13:26,27,32,38,39]

According to Luke’s account, the sermon as a big hit and they were invited back the following week to speak again on the redemption from sin offered through Jesus’s name. When the Sabbath rolled around, Luke tells us that “when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul and Barnabas were saying.” [13:45]. Just a few verses earlier, we are told that “many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism” were inspired by Paul’s message but, by verse forty-five, it is the “Jews” (from which we may infer, Jews who didn’t think the Law was in need of an update) who rejected them.

To these critics, Paul fired back that “we had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.” [13:46]. While the Gentiles are described as “glad and honored” [13:48] to have received this less-exacting invitation into the faith than the more orthodox Jews offered, the unconverted appealed to the “God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men in the city” [13:50] to expel Paul and Barnabas from the city. Echoing Jesus’s instruction to the disciples, the duo “shook the dust from their feet in protest against them” [13:51] and left. It bears mentioning that when Jesus spoke of shaking the dust from one’s shoes in the Gospel According to Matthew, it had a very specific purpose and meaning.

If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off of your feet when you leave that home or town. I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment that for that town. [Matthew, 10:14,15].

By this tradition, Pisidian Antioch should have become a villa non grata so it is curious to note that, near the end of their mission together, Paul and Barnabas are listed as having swung through again to strengthen “the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to “the faith” [Acts 14:21].

Regardless, upon leaving the city, the pair traveled southeast to the city of Iconium where a truncated version of the events in Antioch before it unfolded. They arrived, preached the gospel, won some believers until “a plot afoot among the Gentiles and Jews…to mistreat them and stone them” [14:5] became known and they were, again, forced to flee. Continuing along the same southeasterly vector, they arrived at the city of Lystra where entirely different but equally catastrophic occurred.

As Paul was teaching (we presume in the Synagogue as before), he became aware of a man in the audience who was unable to walk that he “saw had the faith to be healed” [14:9]. Paul cried out to him, “’Stand up on your feet!’ At that, the man jumped up and began to walk” [14:10]. Now this got the folks in Lystra all worked up and their newfound interest in Judaism of whatever type was momentarily forgotten as they decided amongst themselves that Zeus and Hermes (Barnabas and Paul respectively) had come to visit them in human form. It is noteworthy that while Barnabas hasn’t been quoted as saying anything of merit beyond recommending Paul as a disciple to the church immediately after his conversion, he is portrayed inadvertently here as still being Paul’s superior.

While the duo react in horror to this crowd of God-fearing Gentiles trying to sacrifice to them, a group of Jews, now massing from places to which the mission had already been like Pisidian Antioch and Iconium came in and turned an even larger crowd against Paul and Barnabus. Their fortune reversed instantly as that crowd, “stoned Paul and dragged him outside of the city thinking he was dead” [14:19]. Fortunately for Paul and his companions, he was only mostly dead and eventually he got up and returned to the city, presumably in secret, before leaving for the city of Derbe where Luke reports that they “preached the good news…and won a large number of disciples.” [14:21].

Luke writes that, after Derbe, Paul and Barnabus then retraced their steps back through the very cities in which they had nearly been killed. Their mission this time, though, seems to be quite different than before as they “appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord in whom they had put their trust” [14:23]. These visits were no doubt enacted quietly and without the public ruckuses that had characterized their first contact with each new city. Luke makes no mention of synagogues in this passage and uses the word, ‘church’ for the first time in conjunction with some place other than Antioch. After seeding these new churches, the weary duo turned themselves back towards Antioch, their home away from Jerusalem.

While they were gone from Antioch, elders had been dispatched from Jerusalem to bring the church in line with the teachings of the original sect in Judea and Galilee and the news was anything but good. In order to be considered fully converted, the Gentiles of Antioch were told that “’Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved’” [15:1]. One can only imagine Paul and Barnabus’s horror in returning from converting a huge mass of Gentiles to the faith to hear their own followers quaking at the idea that they had to be circumcised. That one dictate of the Law is no doubt what kept so many of those God-fearing Gentiles now eager to become Christians instead from becoming Jews in the first place. No doubt concerned for the validity of those new churches they had risked life and limb to establish, they headed to Jerusalem to settle this dispute with the central authority of the church.

While we must assume that some large faction of the Judean church was objecting to the conversion of uncircumcised Gentiles, what debate Luke records at the Council in Jerusalem is mostly sympathetic to Paul and Barnabas. Only one mention is made of “some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees” [15:5] who argued against them. This description is interesting though because it supports the idea that the Pharisaic opposition to Jesus’s mission was based largely in the fact that his message appealed to its traditional base and he was, in effect, splintering their power among the people to the benefit of their oppositional party, the Sadducees. Now, maybe ten years later, we see the Nazarene sect intermingled with those same elements, suggesting that at least some of the original believers still considered themselves to be law-abiding Jews first and disciples of Jesus the Resurrected Christ second.

Based on Peter’s vision regarding the conversion of Gentiles and the support of key members of the inner circle, the Council resolved the circumcision question with a surprising and simple mandate for potential believers to follow. Captured in letter form within the Acts of the Apostles, their message for the Antioch church read:

We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friend Barnabas and Paul—men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. [15:24-29]

There should be little doubt that this came as no small relief to the body of believers already deeply invested into the church at Antioch and, we are told, “the people read it and were glad for its encouraging message” [15:31]. Judas and Silas remained for an unspecified period of time and then “were sent off by the brothers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them” [15:33] though Silas, we’ll soon discover, was likely not among those who returned. Perhaps it is too cynical to assume that “the blessing of peace” might be a metaphor for “a big wad of cash” not unlike the one that they had sent when prophesies of famine had inspired a similar love offering. Perhaps it was also the promise of this “blessing” that settled the circumcision issue so quickly in the Gentiles favor.

Barnabas and Paul's Mission (click to enlarge)

1. Jerusalem

2. Tarsus, Paul's home.

3. Antioch, site of the first Christian church.

4. Paphos of Cyprus, Barnabas's home.

5. Perga, important port city in the region of Pamphylia. John Mark returns to Jerusalem.

6. Pisidian Antioch

7. Iconium

8. Lystra and Derbe.

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