NTiR: Peter who? It’s Paul’s ball now (Acts 17-21)

Bible and magnifying glassThe chapters we covered in my last entry mark the change in focus from Peter to Paul in the Acts of the Apostles. The whole second half of Acts mentions Peter only briefly. For the most part, Paul is the star. And interestingly enough, Acts gets a lot more interesting now that Paul is our hero. Who would’ve guessed?

Chapter 17I meant to mention this in the previous chapter: the disciples have made it into Greece. Since a lot of the New Testament is translated in Greek, I am guessing this means a lot of important stuff is going to happen in Greece.

When I think of ancient Greece, I think of the amazing dialogues given by Plato and Aristotle. I think of speeches and discourse in temples and courtyards. I imagine conversations  and debate between citizens and government officials. It turns out, that is exactly what the disciples found when they got to Greece.

The disciples first went to Thessalonica, because there was a Jewish temple there. Paul spent three Saturdays discussing the scripture with those gathered. Paul and Silas were able to convince people – especially a crowd of devout Greeks, and “wives of prominent men.” Were Greek women ignored in public discourse, and only allowed to be housewives? That’d definitely explain why so many of them were entranced by Paul and Silas.

The Jewish Greeks became jealous of the disciples, of course. They roused up the city rabble and started to riot in the city. They actually attacked and arrested Jason, a man whose only crime was giving Paul and Silas a place to stay. Fortunately, Jason was able to bail himself out. (I am not making this up, check Acts 17:9.)

Jason’s arrest spooked the disciples, so they moved Paul and Silas on to Berea. The people of Berea were much more open to the disciples and the gospel. The Greeks weren’t immediately believing what was said, but instead wanted to read the gospels and compare and contrast them with the scripture.

The Jews from Thessalonica hear about Paul and Silas’s successes in Berea, and start heading towards Berea to try and make more trouble. The disciples have plenty of warning, though, and move Paul on to Athens, leaving Silas and Timothy in Berea.

Paul’s first impression of Athens was horror, as he saw all of the idols in the city. He is so upset that he heads right to the temple to try to save the citizens, instead of following the plan and waiting for Timothy and Silas. Paul ends up causing a stir, as one would expect. However, instead of getting arrested or beaten or stoned, Paul is brought before the Areopagus (a sort of Greek Supreme Courthouse) and given the opportunity to debate.

Paul takes advantage of the grand stage he is given, and delivers an excellent speech. He starts out by complimenting the citizens (“Men of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way.”) Then he acknowledges their religion and beliefs (“I was walking around and looking closely at the objects you worship.” Paul then proceeds a very unique way of talking about god and Christ. I am going to quote a little bit of this here, because in the end, I really like this speech:

“I even found an altar with this written on it: ‘To an unknown god.’ So I am telling you about the unknown object you worship. The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth. He doesn’t live in shrines made by human hands, and he isn’t served by hands as if he needed anything. He himself gives everyone life, breath, and everything…”

I know that, on the one hand, this seems very rude. Paul appears to be telling the Greeks what their religion and beliefs actually are. But putting this into context of the theater and location changes the tone. Paul is crafting an argument and challenging the givens with logic. It’s a time-honored tradition in Greece of the time.

Paul finishes up his speech, stating that Jesus was killed and God rose Jesus from the dead. At this, many in the Areopagus laughed and scoffed, but many pondered his words and asked to hear more at a later date.

Chapter 18Paul moves on from Athens to Corinth. Which probably rings a bell for you. The upcoming New Testament books I Corinthians and II Corinthians are letters written to church leadership and believers in Corinth. But here in Acts, the Gospel hasn’t been spread there yet. That’s Paul’s job.

Paul takes a while to actually do some work once he gets to Corinth, however. This is inadvertently aided by the Caesar Claudius, who forced all Jews out of Rome. The displaced Jews settled all through the area, including in Corinth. And it was there that Paul met Aquila and Aquila’s wife Priscilla. Aquila was a tent-maker, which Paul apparently was also. So Paul and Aquila went into business together. Paul would spend the Sabbath in the synagogue trying to convert people, but for the rest of the week, Paul was a tent maker.

This went on until Timothy and Silas finally made their way from Macedonia. Paul decided to give up tent making and become a full-time disciple again. Paul tried teaching in the synagogue again, but the Jews started to insult him. Paul was uncharacteristally thin-skinned at this point, and basically stormed off in a huff. He moved out of Aquila’s house and on to the house of Titius Justus. While he was living with Titius, Jesus appeared to Paul in a dream and told Paul to get back to work. Paul did as his lord asked, and spent the next couple of years teaching in Corinth.

Ah, we have another side story! The Jew’s finally gather large enough numbers to attack and capture Paul. They take him to stand trial in front of Gallio, the proconsul of the area. The Jews present their case, using the “he is blaspheming” argument that had worked well up ‘til this point. But Gallio couldn’t care less. He tells the Jews that since they don’t have a real charge against Paul, they need to get the hell out of his court. Gallio didn’t even rise up to the bait when the Jews began beating the synagogue leader.

Ayup, Gallio was awesome. Totally awesome.

The rest of this chapter is just a list of the cities/towns/countries that Paul traveled to next. Nothing to see here.

Chapter 19I just realized something: this book is now focusing almost exclusively on Paul. There was a subtle change as the baton was passes from Peter to Paul. Somewhere a few chapters ago, Paul set off around the world, and Peter decided to stay in Jerusalem. Since then, Acts has been all about Paul, and Paul’s journey, and Paul’s rapidly expanding congregation. I think that we can safely say by this point that Paul is the actual controlling driver in the church, while Peter is the titular head. Apparently, no one has any problem with that, so I won’t have a problem with it either. It is curious, though, that this change seemed to happen in a short amount of time.

Well, relatively short. Because while Paul’s travels are a whirlwind, we have seen a couple of cases where Paul ends up staying in a place for a while. We saw that in the previous chapter, where Paul settled down and became a tent maker for months. We see it in chapter 19, too. Paul sets up camp in Ephesus, and stays there for three months, teaching at the synagogue on the weekends, and doing…. ???  during the week. Paul then picked up stakes and headed off around the country again, taking a two-year tour through the Mediterranean shores and far into Asia. I guess God changed his mind about withholding the gospel from Asia. No reason is given to explain why this is now all right. But then again, no reason was given for not teaching the gospel in Asia, either. So I guess that is a push.

Another side story here. Did I mention that I adore Luke’s side stories? I did? Good, because I really, really love them. This one revolves around the seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish high priest. The sons had heard enough about Paul’s exploits to know that Paul could drive out evil spirits just by saying the name of Jesus. So they clumsily try, yelling “I command you by that Jesus whom Paul preaches!” at a man who was afflicted with an evil spirit. Instead of fleeing, the evil spirit speaks. It says that he knows Jesus and Paul, but does not know these sons of Sceva. The spirit then re-posesses the man’s body and proceeds to beat the crap out of all seven sons, to the point that the sons ran out naked into the street, trying to get away.

There’s also a very sad story here. It’s sad because I know of at least a few modern-day church’s that use Acts 19 as a reason to routinely burn books that they find offensive. People throughout the land were scared because of the mighty acts that Paul and the disciples had performed. They were frightened enough that those who practiced in the occult gathered and started a massive book burning rally. All told, 50,000 silver coins worth of books were gathered and burned. All because the occult members lived in terror of this new religion that was spreading throughout the lands.

I think this was a crime, pure and simple. I am not arguing that everyone should’ve given up and started joining the occult. Nor am I saying that those who truly felt that they wanted to destroy their own books should’ve been forced not to. I do think, however, that there was a peer pressure that built up, and people who probably normally wouldn’t went ahead and burned their books because everyone else was. Maybe peer pressure isn’t the right word. Mass hysteria? Mob mentality? However you want to put it. In the end thousands of books were destroyed, for no good reason.

When Paul made his way to Ephesus, he found that the people of Ephesus were torn. Ephesus was known throughout the empire as the home of the great temple to the goddess Artemis. The Ephesians were concerned that Paul’s religion would turn the people away from worship of Artemis. Ephesian artisans were concerned that their livelihood – crafting shrines to Artemis – would be threatened. In the end, a crowd arose, then turned into a mob. The Ephesian city recorder had to step in and calm the mob before it turned into a full-fledge riot. The crowd did finally disperse, but I get the feeling that this might not be the last we hear of these issues.

Chapter 20We aren’t going to find out what happens in Ephesus after all. Paul leaves, then heads off on another expedition. Pauls travels through Macedonia, Greece, Syria. Paul is starting to get a Messianic streak, however, and is predicting his forthcoming death. But that is getting the chapter out of order. I think this one will work best if done sequentially. Especially since there is a funny side story in it.

Paul makes his way to Troas. Luke counts himself among those who meet up with Paul. Small details tend to catch my attention in some of these stories. Luke appearing as a character in his own story is one of those. Paul stays in Troas for a week: at the end of the week he keeps everyone in the area up past midnight with his teaching. One young man starts to fall asleep somewhere late into the night (who can blame him: how many people have you seen fall asleep at midnight services for Christmas Eve? There’s only so much of the bible one can hear in the wee hours of the morning before one starts to fall asleep). Unfortunately, the young man was sitting in front of a window. On the third floor of the house where they were gathered. The man fell asleep, then fell backwards out of the window all the way down to the ground. The people gathered said, “Well, he’s dead.” Paul assured them that he wasn’t, though, and kept on teaching while he ate dinner. COLD!!!!

Actually, I get the feeling that Paul took a quick look over at the young man, saw that he was still breathing and that people were already going to check on the young man. So Paul decided just to keep trucking along with his sermon. Luke implies as much: “[Paul] bent over him, took him into his arms, and said, ‘Stop being alarmed, for his life is in him.’” Apparently some chose to see this as a miracle. To me, it was just Paul using some basic first aid.Paul decides that he wants to continue on his way to Jerusalem, even though that will probably mean his death (“in town after town the Holy Spirit assures me that imprisonment and suffering are waiting for me.”) Paul doesn’t follow Jesus’s lead on the whole forgiveness thing, though. Paul states flat out “I am not responsible for the blood of any of you. Paul tells those gathered that they will never see his face again (most aren’t going on the boat to travel back to Jerusalem), and warns that there are going to be major problems ahead for the church. He spends a little more time with the other disciples, saying goodbye to everyone in turn. Luke and the others finally pull Paul away from the congregation and onto the boat.

Chapter 21Luke and some other unnamed disciples are accompanying Paul on the journey back to Jerusalem. They bump into the disciples that settled in the towns Paul passed through earlier. In every city, the disciples there try to get Paul to abandon this futile journey to Jerusalem. Paul finally rebukes the other disciples, yelling “What do you mean by crying and breaking my heart?” The disciples decide to keep their opinions to themselves after that, even though they still feel that Paul is making a mistake.

Finally, Paul makes his way into Jerusalem. Paul and Luke went directly to see James. James has been busy preparing for Paul’s return, and has come up with a way to save him. James has set up a purification ceremony for Paul, as a way to prove to the Jews and the church heirarchy that Paul was a devout Jew, and had not turned his back on the Law. Paul happily agreed to this, and the seven-day ritual was started.

Unfortunately, on the last day, the trouble-making Jews from Asia arrived in Jerusalem, and found Paul in the temple. The Asiatic Jews went apoplectic, demanding that the Jews of Jerusalem join them in punishing Paul for trying to desecrate the law and the temple. The Jerusalem Jews agree, and the crowd turns into a mob. Again. This time, however, they are able to capture Paul. They try to batter and beat Paul to death. And they would’ve succeeded, if it weren’t for the meddling Roman Tribune. The Tribune, Claudius Lysias, gathered a handful of soldiers and stormed into the temple, arriving just in time to save Paul.

Damn, you know, that was actually a pretty exciting turn of events!As Paul is being led out of the temple and towards prison (damned jailbird!), Paul asks Lysias to allow Paul to speak to the crowd. The Tribune agrees, so Paul steps up to the podium, waves the crowd to silence, then clears his throat and says….

Says….

???

I’m not trying to be facetious; we don’t know what he says! At least not in this chapter. It’s a cliff-hanger! The chapter ends just as Paul is going to say… something…

Up next: What does Paul say?

New installments of The New Testament In Review will be posted each Monday and Thursday. The new posts will always be on my blog, http://biffster.org. The entire series is accessible via http://biffster.org/ntir. If you are one of my Facebook friends, you can get an advance preview on my Facebook page. You can also follow me (@biffster) on Twitter to be alerted to new posts.