Things are still moving along nicely in the Acts of the Apostles. Last week, Peter started killing people for no really good reason, other than to assert his authority. In his defense, almost everyone acted a little bit out-of-character in the previous chapters, including the Twelve disciples, who chose spreading the word of Jesus above helping out the needy. Oh, and Stephen talked himself into death by stoning. Of course, nothing there can rival being turned into worm food, right?
There are two tales told in Chapter 9. One is important, the other just a sidenote. First up is the tale of Saul. This is probably the tale in Acts that most non-Pentecostals know best. Saul is following the disciples around the country, finding disciples and bringing them back to Jerusalem in chains. He is walking along the road to Damascus when a bright light flashed around him. Saul does the smart thing and drops to his knees. He looks up, and sees Jesus! Jesus asks why Saul keeps persecuting the disciples and believers. Jesus then strikes Saul blind, and commands that he go into Damascus and wait.
In Damascus, Jesus appears to Ananias in a vision (read: dream). Jesus tells Ananias to go to Straight St. (seriously!), stop in at Judas’s house and ask for Saul. Ananias does so, even though he isn’t all that thrilled to be helping Saul. When Ananias arrives at Judas’s house, he lays hands on Saul, healing Saul and baptizing him in the Holy Spirit in one shot.
Being struck blind and then given sight back again has made a believer out of Saul. Saul heads to the synagogue and starts telling everyone that Jesus truly is the Christ. Of course, no one believes that he is now a believer. The Pharisees know that Saul has gone rogue, however, and plot to kill him. Begrudgingly, the disciples smuggle Saul out of town.
Saul is still feared by the greater number of the church, however. Fortunately, one of the apostles (Barnabas) stands up for Saul, tells the story of Saul and Jesus, and the other members agree and welcome Saul in. Saul then continues teaching and praising Jesus, to the point of arguing with the Hellenistic Jews. That wasn’t the smartest thing Saul could do: once again people start planning to kill. The apostles once again smuggle Saul out of town. And I hope that this time, they told him to stop getting himself into these types of situations.
Lord knows that I would’ve.
The other story is one of Luke’s charming side stories. Peter traveled to Lydda, where he found a man named Aeneas. Aeneas had been paralyzed for 8 years; on hearing this Peter healed the man. People in Lydda and Joppa heard this story, and invited Peter down to Joppa. Tabitha – a disciple – got sick and died while in Joppa. Peter was taken to her, and he raised her from the dead. Or at least that’s the accepted interpretation of the story.
It is possible to view this story in a different light. Tabitha was a disciple, which means that she and Peter probably knew each other. After Tabitha dies and Peter is taken to see her body, Peter commands that everyone leave the room. Once he is alone in the room with her (I’ll quote this one straight from the text): “he turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up!’ She opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up.”
To my eyes, this could have been a scam. Tabitha feigns death and waits for Peter to “bring her back to life.” When Peter gets there, he forces everyone to leave him and Tabitha alone. Once they are alone, he has her stand up and pretend to have been resurrected.
I can sense your question already! You want to know why Peter and Tabitha would stage such a complex scheme. But the answer is pretty easy: to make others believe. Whether this was a scheme or a real miracle (you know which I think it was), the net effect was a conversion of many citizens of Joppa.
This chapter is kind of a mess. A few boring things happen, including a massive acid trip – er, I mean vision – on Peter’s part. In his vision, he sees “heaven open and something like a large linen sheet coming down, being lowered by its four corners to the ground. In it were all kinds of four-footed animals, reptiles, and birds of the air.” Ayup, that’s the kind of trip people would pay good money for.
Cornelius the Christian Centurion has summoned Peter for a meal. Peter goes, and finds himself surrounded by a mix of people, including Jews and Gentiles. Both groups ask why it is okay for the others to be there. Peter says that all men are equal in the eyes of Jesus, and everyone is baptized in the Holy Spirit. The Gentiles have already been baptized by water, of course, so the Jews decide that they were going to be, too. And we end up with one big happy Christian dinner party.
For no apparent reason, the first half of Chapter 11 recaps Chapter 10. It is agreed within the church that Gentiles and Jews will be welcome, and should be “saved” everywhere the disciples go. This included Antioch, where another large group of people were converted. Barnabas brought Saul to Antioch, and they stayed there for a year. Oh, Luke is nice enough to mark a very important event: “It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.” Luke even gives a general time anchor: this occurred around the time of a severe famine during the reign of Claudius. I am guessing that many theologians and historians have this date nailed down pretty accurately.
I mentioned back in one of the Gospels that there are some Biblical stories that are meant to be made into movies. Or at least are very modern in their themes and tones. Chapter 12 practically defines that type of story. It’s a story of murder, capture, escape and revenge. And worms! Forget not the worms. [shudder]
Herod has flipped out and is ordering that all Christians be arrested. Once they were captured, Herod commanded that the Christians be tortured, and some (for example John’s brother James) killed. All in all, it was a bad time. You know how everyone remembers that the Roman’s hated Christians? That can all be blamed on Herod. Herod is barely recognizable as the man who found Jesus guiltless and wouldn’t hand him over for execution.
In the midst of all this persecution, Peter is arrested. Herod’s plan is to turn over Peter to the Pharisees and their followers for execution the day after Passover. Herod didn’t know, however, that Peter was praying for deliverance, and that God was listening to that prayer. And that God had an Angel Strike Force to send to the rescue.
The night before Peter’s handover, the Romans bound him in chains, set two guards on each side of Peter’s bed, and two guards at the door. I’ll give it to Herod and the Romans: they were extremely proficient when it came to guarding prisoners. For most prisoners, this would’ve been more than enough to guarantee there were no chance for escape. But most prisoners didn’t have angels!
An angel (of the Lord) appears. The angel shines light into the cell, and saw it was definitely Peter. The angel wakes Peter up, releases him from his chains, disguises Peter and leads him out of the cell and out into the city. The angel then disappears, leaving Peter to try and figure out what just happened, and what his next step should be.
Like any escapee in any action movie, Peter’s next logical step is to find somewhere to hide. Fortunately, John’s mother lived close by, and had regular prayer meetings. So Peter ran there, figuring that he’d have sympathetic people who would help keep him safe. Peter knocked on the door, and heard Rhoda walking over to the door to answer it. Peter called out to her, and in a perfect bit of comedic action, Rhoda ran back into the house! She was so excited at hearing Peter’s voice that she totally forgot to open the door!
Poor Peter was locked outside the door, and he knew that the Roman guards had to be searching for him by know. Peter knocked on the door, then started pounding on it, trying to get someone – anyone – to let him off the damned street!
In the meantime, Rhoda had told everyone inside the house that Peter was at the gate. No one believed her, since they all thought Peter was dead by now. One even tells Rhoda, “Bah, you’re out of your mind, if it’s anything, it’s his angel out there.” Rhoda finally convinces one or two of the gathered, and they go to the door and let Peter in.
Of course, by this time Peter is feeling out of time. So Peter tells those who let him in the gate the story of the angel helping him escape, commands that James and the brothers be told this story also, and then leaves the house to find somewhere else to hide. Presumably, somewhere where he won’t have to pound on a gate for 10 minutes before someone opens up for him.
In the morning, Peter’s escape causes mayhem. Herod is so incensed that he orders the execution of the soldiers and guards who were supposed to be watching Peter.
Luke then takes a massive digression and tells the tale of the end of Herod. This side story is weird, since it comes at the tail end of a very exciting series of events. This shouldn’t be a surprise: as his Gospel evinced, Luke felt that some side stories were just as important as the major storylines. Hence Luke recalling the story of Simon the priest at the beginning of his Gospel. And the tale of the end of Herod here.
Herod starts a war with Tyre and Sidon. The Christians are able to convert one of Herod’s servants, Blastus, and have him entreat Herod on their behalf. Herod heard the arguments, and decided to side with the people of Tyre and Sidon. Herod put on his best royal robes and sat down to make a speech. And it must’ve been a great speech, because people declared that the speech was from a god. Herod accepted this praise as his own, which was a major mistake. The angel of the lord appeared before Herod sand struck him down for keeping the glory for himself. As Herod was dying, worms started crawling on him and eating him.
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