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THE BOOK OF ACTS
Week 42, Chapters 18 and 19
We have been following Paul’s missionary journeys, where he is taking the Good News to the many foreign nations of the Roman Empire (starting with the many Jewish communities) that the Messiah that the Jews had been waiting for has come. He invariably begins by showing up in a city and going to the local synagogue to speak. But this Good News was not so good to many Diaspora Jews because it bore little resemblance to the teachings of their Jewish religious leadership concerning the nature and purpose of a Messiah. What was most difficult to swallow, perhaps, was the deity of Yeshua. Not surprisingly, many gentile God-fearers who attended some of these synagogues were more open to the Gospel of Yeshua because they weren’t as indoctrinated to the Jewish traditions about the expected nature of the Messiah as were the Jews.
The traditional perspective was that the Messiah would be much as King David was; even, perhaps, a reincarnation of sorts of King David himself. This Messiah would be a warrior leader who would propel the Jews to a successful rebellion against Rome, free the Jewish nation from its occupiers, install the Jewish Messiah as the new Davidic king of a new and expanded Israelite kingdom, and essentially replace the Roman Empire as the world power.
This was an era when the synagogue (not the Temple) was the source of Jewish religious instruction, and the oversight for proper observance and behavior was performed by the synagogue leaders who took their cue from the Pharisees. The Temple was considered by many ordinary Jews to be at best of questionable authority, and (as with the Essenes) at worst as corrupt and illegitimate; so priests were simply there and tolerated because of the Torah-required ritual and ceremonial functions that they, and only they, could perform. If the ordinary Jews refused to co-operate with the priests and recognize their authority then they found themselves unable to comply with the Laws of Moses regardless of how much they might have looked upon the priesthood with contempt.
Nevertheless the Jews of Judea and the Galilee had a close connection with the Temple even though they also gave their allegiance to the various synagogues. But the Jews of the Diaspora had much less to do with the Temple since only the most able had the wherewithal or the motivation to make the long, expensive and sometimes risky trip to Jerusalem from whatever foreign soil they lived upon in order to be obedient to the Torah and to participate in the various Biblical festivals. Certainly it was completely impractical for them to go to the Temple to offer sacrifices to atone for their sins as the occasions arose. Thus a veritable stream of itinerant prophets and teachers went out from Jerusalem and made their way to the many synagogues of the Diaspora where they were generally well received and viewed as representatives coming from “home base”. Paul and his disciples were seen as among those many itinerant teachers and so getting an audience was not difficult.
When we left off last time, Paul was about to leave Corinth after a great deal of trouble had arisen due to the message of Salvation, as he intended to make his way back to the Holy Land. He would take a ship to get there; but before he left, at the seaport of Cenchrea he had his hair cut to fulfill the ritual requirements of a vow he had made. We know nothing about the nature or purpose of this vow or when he first made it. Acts 18:18 reports on this matter with little comment as though Luke’s readers ought to fully understand the ins and outs of Paul having his hair cut as part of a vow fulfillment. I certainly wish Luke had told us more because through the centuries gentile Christians have accepted some very dubious teachings of the early Church Fathers about what Paul did and why he did it. And while not universal, the consensus is to apologize for it and try to sweep it under the carpet as a bit embarrassing. Let me elaborate by quoting from a letter written by the early Church Father Jerome from the mid-4th century A.D.
“Granted that there he (Paul) did what he did NOT wish to do, through the compelled fear of the Jews: why did he let his hair grow in consequence of a vow and afterward cut it at Cenchrea in obedience to the law? Because the Nazarites who vowed themselves to God were accustomed to do this according to the commands of Moses”.
So Jerome says that Paul didn’t do this by his own free will; he had it forced on him out of fear of the Jews and only did it to satisfy a Jewish custom so that he didn’t find himself in a bad way with the local Jewish population. Later the Church Father Venerable Bede had a different sort of rationalization for Paul performing this vow ritual. In his commentary on the Book of Acts Bede wrote:
“Paul did these things (performed the vow ritual of hair cutting) NOT indeed because he had forgotten what he, along with the other apostles, had settled at Jerusalem concerning the abolition of the Law, but so that those among the Jews who had come to believe might not be scandalized, so he played the part of a Jew himself in order to win over the Jews”.
Now I could read this in almost any church in the world and get affirming nods of heads and perhaps even applause; but my hope is that you realize how anti-Semitic, anti-Scripture, and just plain erroneous such a thought process is. Bede claims that Paul indeed did do this hair cutting vow ritual even though he knew that the Law had been abolished at the Jerusalem Council (in Acts 15). But even more, Bede suggests that Paul pretended to still be a Jew (he merely played a role) in order to win the approval of Jews so that they would hear the Gospel from him. That is, Bede claimed (as did most of the Church by this time) that James and the Jerusalem Council abolished the Law of Moses for Believers (Jew or gentile), even though no such statement or implication exists in Scripture. But even more we see that the Church view had very early on hardened such that to be a Believer in Christ meant that if one was born a Jew, one had to convert to a gentile and fully abandon his or her former Jewish identity. Thus the Church Fathers felt that somewhere along the way Paul had actually renounced his Jewish heritage and become a gentile. The hair cutting ritual was merely a ruse that allowed him to continue playing a role: pretending to still be Jewish. And Paul did that in order to deceive his fellow Jews (for their own benefit) so that they would listen to what he had to say about salvation in Yeshua, give up their Jewishness and become gentile Christians.
I hope you are as appalled as I am. But friends, this well documented mindset of many of the influential early Church Fathers (all gentiles of course) is the source of what a majority of Christians still believe to this day and these thoughts are enshrined in some of the most foundational doctrines of Christianity. It is the classic methodology of Bible interpretation to begin with a doctrine decided upon long ago by a gentile Church council, and then work backwards to twist and turn Scripture passages to make them fit the doctrine. So here in Acts 18:18 the recorded beliefs of these two highly respected Church Fathers imply that Paul isn’t really a Jew anymore; however he wants the local Jews to think he still is and so he goes through with this ceremonial hair cutting as part of a vow, but he isn’t sincere about it. It is merely part of a bait and switch scheme so that the local Jews might find him trustworthy as one of them. And then when their guard is down, he can pounce on them with the Gospel of Christ! (Unbelievable. You can’t make this stuff up!)
Let’s re-read a short section of Acts 18 to begin our lesson today.
READ ACTS CHAPTER 18:19 – end
So Paul arrived in Ephesus and stayed there briefly. The only reason he was even in Ephesus is because that was the route of the ship that he was on; first it would stop at Ephesus and then continue on to Caesarea Maritima, the major port city for the Holy Land and Paul’s destination.
His first agenda item upon arrival was to go to Jerusalem and report to the Believing community there, since that was the headquarters of The Way. A couple of things: first, while the CJB inserts the word “Jerusalem”, it is not actually there. The text merely says that first Paul “went up” to greet the community (in most Bibles community is translated as Church). Then after he went up, he went down; down to Antioch. These terms “went up” and “went down” are merely common Jewish expressions. “Went up”, or to “go up”, always referred to going to Jerusalem. Thus in contrast to the “up” of Jerusalem, anywhere else one might go is “down”. It is really an expression of veneration and status of the place. Jerusalem was by no means the highest geographical elevation even in the Holy Land; but it was the highest place from a status perspective, and from a religious perspective. Thus every other place in the world (even Mt. Everest) would be considered as being “down” from Jerusalem.
Second, in verse 22 where we usually find the word Church in English Bibles (but in the CJB find instead Messianic Community) the Greek word is ekklesia. Ekklesia is a common, generic Greek word that means assembly or community (any kind of an assembly or community). It carries no religious connotation with it. However most modern Bibles substitute the word Church for ekklesia in order to give us the mental picture of going to a place with stained glass, a steeple, pews and a group of gentile “Christians” meeting there to praise Jesus. While indeed it was Believers in Yeshua that Paul went to see, they were all Jews; and they all continued to practice their Jewish ways. They continued to meet in their synagogues and followed their standard Jewish liturgy; no stained glass, no steeples, and no pews.
Antioch was where the synagogue that had been sponsoring his missionary trips was located. We’re told that Paul visited there for some time and then departed to again visit a number of the Believers that he had established in the region of Phrygia.
Verse 24 changes the subject and we are introduced to a Believer named Apollos; he had come to Ephesus to teach. Ephesus was similar to London; it was a commercial and banking center. It was self-governing and was probably the 3rd largest city in the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria, Egypt. So if one wanted an opportunity to connect with a great number of Jews and/or gentiles in a short time, Ephesus was the place.
I pointed out in earlier lessons that while Paul was a special emissary personally commissioned by the risen Yeshua to take the Good News to both the Jews and the gentiles, he was not the only Believer doing this. Paul was the foremost Jewish Apostle; but he wasn’t in charge of all the efforts to evangelize. Many others took it upon themselves (usually no doubt at the direction of the Holy Spirit) to tell people in foreign lands about the ways of the God of Israel. But Apollos was not from Jerusalem; he was a Diaspora Jew who lived in the largest Jewish center outside of the Holy Land at that time: Alexandria, Egypt.
History knows of Alexandria (named for Alexander the Great) as a cosmopolitan city of diverse cultures. One of its most famous institutions was its unrivaled library. The city sat at the crossroads of commerce and so it was a thriving and wealthy place that attracted people from all over the empire. Many famous Jews lived in Alexandria including the intellectual Philo. A treasure chest of Jewish thought was created and stored in Alexandria; the education system was unsurpassed. So it is not surprising that someone of Apollo’s capabilities would come from there.
However the most popular brand of Judaism practiced in Alexandria was quite progressive and in line with the Hellenism that Rome wanted as the sort of universal culture in their empire. Thus Jewish philosophy more than Torah scholarship was the result. Nevertheless some of the best and brightest Jewish minds flocked there to argue their points of view with other Jewish intellectuals. But it was also in Alexandria that the first Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible was created, 3 centuries earlier. This is the Bible that we today know as the Septuagint and it was what most Jews of that era used for their Bible.
Apollos is (not surprisingly) described as an eloquent speaker who was very studied in the Tanakh: the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. What we learn about what Apollos knew and believed and taught can be a little confusing. On the one hand we’re told that he is a great Bible scholar, that he had been informed about the way of the Lord, and that he accurately taught facts about Yeshua. But then we’re thrown a curve ball; verse 25 says that even so, he only knew about the immersion of Yochanan (John the Baptist). Apollos was such a good speaker that he was invited to speak in synagogues and Paul’s friends Aquila and Priscilla, who were still in Ephesus, went to hear him speak and teach. But they quickly realized that there was much Apollos didn’t know about Christ, so they undertook to teach him. The implication is that the brilliant Apollos was sufficiently humble that he welcomed Aquila and Priscilla’s knowledge about Yeshua. There is much to talk about here.
At this time in history (around 52 A.D.) there were many strands of Messianic Judaism in existence. The one we know most about was the one led by James and Peter in Jerusalem; but there were several more. Not all of those strands looked to James and Peter as their religious authorities. Some Believers (no doubt including Apollos) were so intelligent and educated that they didn’t feel the need to have a mentor or to be given official permission to teach about Yeshua and the Gospel. So, they didn’t all believe the same things and therefore didn’t all teach the same doctrines. They studied on their own and sought to enlighten others on their own. So it is nearly impossible to know with any certainty exactly what it is that Apollos was teaching about Yeshua. What is startling, however, is that when asked about baptism he said he only knew about John’s baptism and knew nothing of being immersed into Yeshua. What does “John’s baptism” mean? Actually we’ve dealt with this before but let’s review.
John the Baptist preached repentance of sins; and so when he baptized it was for repentance of sins. That is an entirely different issue than salvation in Christ. John did not baptize for salvation in Christ, and thus one did not receive the Holy Spirit in John’s baptism (of course John was baptizing before the Pentecost event happened after Yeshua’s death and resurrection). However what John taught was that before one could be saved, one first had to repent of sins; thus John’s was a sort of preliminary baptism to Christ’s. Then what is baptism in Christ? The Bible tells us that this immersion is a complete re-birth from a spiritual perspective. So the sequence is: repentance first, re-birth second. Apparently Apollos knew a great deal about Yeshua. He was well steeped in information about Yeshua (which would have come mainly word of mouth) and he could communicate them. And that while he had repented for his sins (John’s baptism) he had not accepted Yeshua in the way we typically think of it (and apparently didn’t know enough to realize that this was the vital step). Therefore he could not have received the Holy Spirit.
This shows us something important: a non-Believer can be quite an effective Bible teacher. I can vouch for this because many modern Bible commentators that I have read…..very good ones….not only aren’t Christians, they don’t even believe in God. This goes for both Jewish and gentile Bible scholars. Usually they are highly educated historians and/or brilliant language scholars. But for them the Bible is merely humanly created literature and they have become expert on the Bible as a career path; but not as a source of truth or as a divine Holy Book. Apollos, on the other hand, was a spiritual man; he believed in the God of Israel and he believed in the Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh) as truth. He also seemed to believe some things about Yeshua that is not at all clear to us. Apparently Aquila and Priscilla tutored Apollos in the beliefs and doctrines of The Way, the Jerusalem-based strand of Messianic Judaism. By all accounts he seems to have accepted it. Remember: there was no such thing as a New Testament for Apollos to study; and there wouldn’t be a New Testament for another 150 years. In time (but not yet), some of Paul’s letters would start to be shared among Believers and a couple of the Gospel accounts would also start to circulate, informally. But a number of other teaching letters and Gospels written by other authors than the ones that are in our Bibles also gained traction. So whatever Apollos had learned, and would learn, about Yeshua would have come from listening to others. Who those others were before Aquila and Priscilla we don’t know.
I don’t want to wax too philosophical; however there are so many millions of Christians who have some facts and knowledge about Jesus; but what is it that they think they know about Him? What is it that they actually believe about Him? What is it that they felt was happening to them when they were immersed……if ever they were immersed? And if they were immersed, immersed into what? Are we really saved in God’s eyes if the Jesus Christ that we believe in is nothing like the one in the Bible, or that what He actually taught (as recorded in the New Testament) are not the doctrines that we’ve been told are what He commands of us or are not the values we are to live by? I wish I had answers for you. But there can be no better example of this conundrum than Apollos; we are left to ponder whether this fine man was truly saved before he met Aquila and Priscilla. Or was it only afterward when vital blanks of his faith in God were filled in? Knowledge is indeed the key, but it must be the correct knowledge. And trust in Yeshua is the door; but it must be in the real Yeshua, not the one of our personal imaginings or the one we prefer.
Clearly Apollos was a motivated evangelist; and a gifted one as well. So after some undisclosed amount of time he traveled to Achaia to speak and teach. He apparently had gained enough knowledge, and now sufficiently agreed with the doctrines of The Way, that letters of recommendation were sent on his behalf to Believers in Achaia to welcome him. When he arrived he fearlessly debated the unbelieving Jews, in public, and used the Scriptures (as opposed to “reasoning” with them) to demonstrate the truth of what he was teaching: that Yeshua of Nazareth is indeed the Messiah the Tanakh spoke about.
Let’s move on to Acts chapter 19.
READ ACTS CHAPTER 19 all
In verse 1 we learn that Apollos was in Corinth at the same time that Paul had arrived in Ephesus. This was Paul’s 2nd time in Ephesus. It seems that he goes to some Believers there and asks them if they had received the Holy Spirit when they came to belief. “No”, they said. In fact, they had never even heard of the Holy Spirit. So what we’re learning is that apparently through one Believer or another, many Jews and gentiles had learned about Yeshua, and believed what they heard. And, just like Apollos, they had even been baptized; but they had been baptized into John’s baptism: a baptism of repentance of sins. And indeed Paul agrees with that but says that there must be another baptism as well.
One of the issues of New Testament times was that immersion had become a kind of social norm that tended to identify a person with a particular teacher, philosopher, or even religious party. Thus we’ll hear of Paul speaking of people being baptized in his name, just as we hear the same of John the Baptist and of course of Yeshua. In fact being baptized in the teachings or ways of someone or another was common and didn’t carry the specific religious meaning that we think of it today. Joseph Shulam calls this a personality cult; not unlike young people who will follow certain Rock Stars wherever they go because they are so enthralled with them. And then it was rather usual that after being immersed into a certain teacher, another teacher would eventually come along that tickled this persons ears and he’d change allegiance by being immersed (literally and figuratively) into this latest teacher’s ways. So the practice of immersion had become somewhat tainted in its reason and purpose.
Thus we see one reason why Paul would even think to ask into what (or more in line with the times, into WHO) these professed Believers in Ephesus had been immersed.
These disciples told him that it was into the immersion of John. But a second reason for his inquiry is that no doubt Paul sensed that these Believers had but the most vague understanding of their faith in Yeshua. Paul never seems to question whether they rightly accepted that from a historical and factual basis Yeshua was the Messiah; but to Paul there was also no sign that any of these disciples were bearing the evidence of having received the spirit. No doubt Paul had encountered this before; so he knew the symptoms as well as what questions to ask, and how to respond.
Now we must be honest in noting that after immersing these disciples (who seemed to put up no protest) into the immersion of Yeshua, Paul then laid his hands on them and it is upon laying on of his hands that they received the Holy Spirit the text says. It has been a long running debate within various denominations as to whether it was the immersion or the laying on of hands that the Holy Spirit came upon these men. Even more they began speaking in tongues; and for me it is the speaking in tongues….and not the reception of the Holy Spirit….that we need to be looking at. Speaking in tongues is something that seems to have occurred whenever one of the Apostles was directly involved in someone coming to faith (we saw it in the case of Cornelius and Peter for instance). Yet, Paul clearly implies that it is being immersed into the name of Yeshua that brings in the Holy Spirit. Immersion and laying on of hands are two different things done for different purposes. So it is hard to know what to make of this other than it may be a special privilege that the Lord blessed these Apostles with to cause those disciples present to speak in tongues. After all; when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, Peter was present and there was no immersion at all. Even so the disciples began speaking in tongues. So I think it is wrong to contrive a rigid doctrinal formula or demand a certain sequence based on what we’ve read to this point about the coming of the Holy Spirit, immersion, laying on of hands, and speaking in tongues. But one thing is clear: water immersion in the name of Yeshua is a New Testament commandment for Believers; this is not an option. And receiving the Holy Spirit is the sign of our acceptance into the Kingdom; yet we have seen instances where the Holy Spirit came before immersion and other instances when He came after immersion. We’ve seen instances of the new Believers speaking in tongues; and other times when it doesn’t happen (or at least, it is not mentioned).
Paul previously had made a short visit to the synagogue of Ephesus when he was on his way from Corinth to the Holy Land and promised them that if the Holy Spirit led him back that he would come and teach them more. Having completed his business back home, he made the 1500 mile overland journey back to Ephesus to fulfill his promise. Paul taught there for 3 months, apparently without interference. But as always happened, in time those who just could not bring themselves to accept Paul’s teaching on Yeshua and salvation turned on him and the trouble began. Those in the Ephesus synagogue who had hardened their hearts and become firm in their opposition to the Gospel began, of course, to speak not only against Paul but also against The Way. This time in response Paul did an interesting thing: he took those disciples who had come to believe and departed with them in tow from the synagogue and began preaching and teaching in an entirely new venue: the hall of Tyrannus (or as it says in the CJB, in Tyrannus’ yeshiva). What we see here is what today we might call a church split. Yet when we see this from God’s perspective, this goes back to one of the first God-Principles I ever taught you: the principle of Division, Election, and Separation.
Sometimes the Lord determines to divide us into groups, elect the group that He chooses to follow Him for a certain divine purpose, and separate them (us) from everyone else. I can tell you from experience that as difficult and gut wrenching as it is, sometimes there is no choice but to leave a congregation that you had been part of and go elsewhere. Perhaps it happens because you have learned too much to continue identifying yourself with a group you know is stubbornly wrong minded and is no longer in harmony with Yeshua. At other times it isn’t so much about right and wrong as it is about following the Lord’s plan for your life. Sadly, it can also be over the most petty or selfish things, and the split and separation reflects nothing but human failure. It is never a desirable thing to do to be in the middle of congregation split regardless of the reason, and it invariably causes long lasting hard feelings among brethren. Yet, when it is done for the right reasons, and seems to be God directed, what are we to do? Twice we have seen Paul do this: the first time he acrimoniously parted company with his long time traveling companion Barnabas (over his nephew John Mark), and now he not only leaves this synagogue on bad terms but he takes with him those who adhere to what Paul is teaching. It is one thing to go away; but the anger only increases when you to take people with you.
Let’s part today with this thought. What Paul did in leaving the synagogue and taking disciples with him was radical and generally was considered a serious offense against Halakhah: Jewish Law. No doubt the word got around the Jewish communities of the Diaspora and so from here forward we don’t find Paul going to many more synagogues (some say that he never again preached in synagogues but I find that as highly improbable). This incident would have had much to do with what we’ll read in Acts chapter 21 about Paul going to Jerusalem and consulting with James, with one of the main issues being that Paul was being slandered among the Jewish communities with the accusation that he was speaking against the Law. So James would have Paul give a public demonstration of his continuing allegiance to the Law of Moses.
We’ll continue with Acts chapter 19 next time.
THE BOOK OF ACTS
Week 41, chapter 18
We continue in the Book of Acts chapter 18 as we see how Paul continued the expansion of the Yeshua movement into places more and more distant from its birthplace in Judea and Galilee. In this chapter we are told about Paul being a tentmaker (and by the way, the term for his trade in Greek, skenopoios, literally means leather maker), and how his trade helped him to connect with a Believing Jewish couple who had recently been expelled from Rome under the edict of Emperor Claudius. The reason for Aquila and Priscilla’s expulsion? They were Jews. All Jews were ordered to leave Rome around 49 or 50 A.D. because it seems they constantly fought amongst themselves, and then tended to persuade their gentile neighbors to join in the fray. This sort of civil unrest was not tolerated in the Roman Empire and was dealt with swiftly and harshly.
While it is not certain, because the edict of Claudius specifically says that a person named Chrestus was the chief instigator of the Roman disturbances, and because The Way was also indicated as somehow being the impetus for the ruckus, it is thought by many Bible scholars that Chrestus was not a person living at that time but rather was referring to Christ. Not Christ in the flesh but rather his teachings that of course form the foundation of the Believing community.
But this opens another interesting subject that adds to our understanding of Paul the person and the way he was viewed in those days. In the Greco-Roman world manual labor was looked down upon. Work like carpentry, brick laying, and tent making were considered menial tasks beneath the station and dignity of Roman citizens. In fact even the Greek words denoting manual labor long carried with them a rather demeaning flavor. The many minority ethnic groups that helped populate the Roman Empire provided the valuable blue collar labor needed within Roman society; but at the same time they were looked down upon as ignorant and uncultured people.
This explains the interesting backlash that occurred with especially the Christian community that arose after 100 A.D. Christianity infused into manual labor an aura of dignity, and a good work ethic as a moral virtue. There is a fascinating story about the early Church Father Augustine chastising some monks who were much too idle in his estimation and he criticized their refusal to get their hands dirty (so to speak), and so he extolled the virtues of hard work and toil; he used Paul as his example. So he and others began to see Paul as a good example of living a simple life that refused slothfulness and luxury by means of honest work that involved manual labor.
The irony of this is that Paul was born into Jewish aristocracy. He was sent to the finest Jewish religious school (Gamaliel’s), and then very quickly afterwards began serving not as a humble craftsman but rather as a sophisticated and intellectual staff member of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin. The status of a tentmaker was in conflict with the status of a learned Pharisee and operative for the Jewish High Court; it is also not indicative of his privileged upbringing and social station. So how, when and why did Paul learn the trade of a lowly tentmaker? After all, he well knew what being a common laborer meant in the Roman Empire. There is nothing that tells us how all this came about; but I think it is somewhat less than speculation to say that he probably did it for 2 reasons. One, as a means of supporting himself anywhere he happened to be, once he became an itinerant teacher of the Gospel. And two, it was a means to distance himself from Jewish aristocracy and the ties he had with the Sanhedrin, and instead to align himself with the common Jews who were usually craftsmen. Essentially not long after his salvation Paul chose not only to identify himself with Christ on a spiritual level, but also to identify himself with common folk on a social level. Clearly Paul was going to evangelize enormously more common folk than aristocrats. This is a great lesson for those among us who want to teach, evangelize and lead others to Yeshua. We need to identify with those to whom we speak. We need to refrain from holding ourselves as above and separate. Yet Paul was merely following the example of His Master Yeshua. Yeshua was a carpenter and so far as we know He continued to be one throughout His adult life and ministry. He didn’t present His message to the religious leadership or the influential, but rather to the everyday Jew. He didn’t hang out with the wealthy, and then at times go make a speech to the poor. His 12 disciples were the Jewish working class; not the Jewish elite.
I am persuaded that even if by God’s will there may at times be a difference in education and affluence between teacher and student, there does not need to be an intentionally visible difference in class and status (and it is far more sincere and effective if there is not). I know a few wealthy Believers who most people would have no idea of their affluence unless they knew them as well as I do because these folks don’t hold themselves apart from those who God has not favored materially. They refuse the most expensive clothes and cars; they shun expensive jewelry, diamond encrusted watches and other obvious symbols of wealth. Rather their attitude is that the less they spend on those things the more they can spend to help others and do God’s will in His kingdom.
This is another reason that I like and admire Paul. He to me is not only a man’s man, he is also indifferent to wealth and prestige. Oh, he would make good use of his Roman citizenship and his elite education; but it was to do God’s work of spreading the Good News as opposed to spending time building bigger barns and enriching himself. He saw it not as demeaning to live among the average workers and to labor with his hands, but rather he wanted to be near to those he sought to teach and to utilize his craft as the means to support himself so that he could accomplish his mission without placing that burden upon others.
Paul intentionally remade himself so that he could follow the Lord all the better. As we read about Paul we see why early Church Fathers claimed that heavenly angels honored him, and demons trembled at him so that he could honestly say without bragging that (as taken from Acts 20:34) “These same hands served my need and those who were with me.”
Let’s follow Paul a little farther on his second missionary journey. He is now in Corinth and soon will be in Ephesus.
Open your Bibles to Acts chapter 18.
RE-READ ACTS CHAPTER 18:4 – end
Paul, in vs. 6, essentially tells those who refuse to listen to him about God’s mercy through Yeshua that they are committing spiritual self-murder. And that he has done his part by telling them about the Gospel and therefore also the consequences of rejecting it, and so bears no further responsibility in the matter. That, folks, is really the attitude we are to have. We are to speak the truth of the Good News to whomever the Lord puts in our path and whatever happens thereafter is between that person and God. It is not up to us whether this person enters the Kingdom of God. It is not our failure if they do not, or our victory if they do. However for us to be derelict in our duty to tell others about Yeshua (people that we know need it) in some ways makes us complicit in their possible destruction.
Apparently Paul hung in there as long as he could but eventually the rising opposition to his message grew so contentious that he had to withdraw from speaking in this particular synagogue in Corinth. There seems to have been at least two. He didn’t have far to go to find a new venue to continue his teaching; next door to this particular synagogue lived a God-fearing gentile name Titius Justus who no doubt attended that synagogue and he opened his house to Paul and those who wanted to hear him. But even more interestingly the leader of the synagogue, Crispus, also came to faith and (as was customary) his entire household followed suit. One has to wonder if since the synagogue was so split over this issue of salvation in Yeshua that Crispus was able to remain as its president; Luke doesn’t tell us.
The contentiousness of the situation was obviously of great concern to Paul. Yes, he had a number of successes (some of which he speaks about in 1st Corinthians). At the same time the going had been rough and no doubt wearying to him. So the Lord (whether this means the Father or Yeshua we’re not told) comforts and encourages Paul by telling him in a vision to go on speaking and preaching because despite the strong words spoken against him no one in Corinth will actually do him any harm. And the reason that no harm will come is that the Lord says that He has “many people in this city”. Does that mean that these people (whoever they are) will protect Paul? Possibly. But I think it also gives Paul a kind of assurance that we all seek: strength in numbers. Paul is not alone; there are many like-minded God-fearers and Jews in Corinth that he simply isn’t aware of. So this knowledge comforted Paul sufficiently that he stayed in Corinth (despite all the opposition) for 18 months teaching those who would heed God’s Word. But then conditions changed.
Gallio became the new proconsul over the province of Achaia starting in 50 or 51 A.D. and remained in his position for 3 years. So this gives us a pretty good marker in time to know when this scene is taking place. The Jews that remained in strong opposition to Paul actually brought a judicial case against him and took him to court. That is, there weren’t riots in the streets in Corinth as protest as we saw in other places Paul went. Rather there was a well thought out attempt by the Jewish community to officially outlaw what Paul was teaching. We see this exact thing in Israel today. Proselytizing Jews in Israel isn’t just discouraged; it is illegal and is punishable with heavy fines and jail time. The effect of what Proconsul Gallio could decide in the case, and what Israel in modern times has decided, has a profound effect on being able to spread the Gospel. It is one thing to battle individuals; it is quite another to battle against official government policy.
So what was the specific charge brought against Paul? Verse 13 says that “This man is trying to persuade people to worship God in ways that violate the law”. Our CJB says “violate the Torah”, but that is a bit misleading. The Greek word used here is nomos and it properly translates into English as “law”. So what “law” do the Jews claim Paul is violating? Roman law? Or does it mean like the editor of the CJB inserts, the Torah law? Please pay close attention since the answer affects how we interpret much of the New Testament. I have no doubt that it means neither of those things. Rather it means Halakhah; Jewish law. And since these are not terms that most Believers are familiar with (except here in Torah Class, perhaps), let me remind you that Halakhah is a fusion of the Biblical Torah, Jewish Tradition, and Jewish customs. The typical term that was used throughout the New Testament, however, is simply “The Law”.
While when used in its most technical and original sense the term “The Law” points to that part of the Biblical Torah where the laws of Moses are written down, that was in Paul’s day (and remains so to this day) no longer what it is referring to except in rare cases. The Law usually, and in common every day speech among Jews, meant Halakhah: Jewish Law. And just to make things a bit more confusing for us, the term “Torah” had also evolved to carry a dual meaning. At times it was used in its technical sense as meaning the first 5 books of the Bible; but in its more common usage it had become synonymous with Halakhah. Is this knowledge important to the average Bible reader? No; it is critical because Paul uses the term “the Law” over and over again in his epistles and we need to understand what he means by that.
If we don’t understand that the vast majority of the time that we see the word “law” that Paul means Halakhah (but there was no parallel Greek word for this Hebrew term, and there is no English word either), and only sometimes is he referring to the laws found in the Biblical Torah, then it sends us down rabbit trails that produce erroneous doctrines that have led Christianity into an underlying anti-Semitism that many Believers don’t even realize is there. But worse, all too often due to these misunderstandings by gentile Christians (going all the way back to some of the earliest Church Fathers), mainstream Church doctrine has Paul declaring that the Torah Law of Moses is a bad thing, a faulty thing, which God finally acknowledged was doing more harm than good and so He abolished it. Thus Church doctrine literally has Paul disputing against Christ’s declaration of Matthew 5 that the Law is NOT abolished and in fact not the smallest iota of it will change until heaven and earth passes away (which, by the way, actually occurs at the end of the 1000 year reign of Christ, and you can read about it in Revelation 21).
So the Jews of Corinth are complaining to Gallio that Paul is teaching things that violate Jewish Law. Verse 14 explains that Paul was just about to say something to defend himself when Gallio said to the accusers that he was not going to involve himself because from a Roman law standpoint, no crime had been committed and no injury had been caused. So he had better things to do than to adjudicate internal Jewish religious fights.
Let me have all of your attention for a moment, please: one of the most common lines of thought in Biblical commentary on this passage is that here we see the Jews of Corinth telling Gallio that essentially what Paul taught was not Jewish, and rather that it was Christianity, which was a totally separate religion. So Christianity and Judaism were now different and separate. And while Judaism was legally sanctioned in the Roman Empire, obviously Christianity was not and so the Roman proconsul needs to outlaw Paul and his illegal Christianity. The venerable F.F. Bruce in his commentary on Acts says: “The charge which was preferred against Paul before Gallio was that of propagating a (new) religion and on that basis forming a society not countenanced by Roman Law”. Not one word in this recorded conversation between the Jews of Corinth and Gallio remotely implies, let alone addresses, such a thing; so why would such an accomplished scholar as F. F. Bruce come to this strained conclusion? Because it is the classic case of Christian Biblical apology; it is the method of working backwards from an established Church doctrine in order to try to find a basis for it in the Scriptures. And yet here in the words of the pertinent Biblical passage we have the complaining Jews saying outright that Paul, the Jew, was not following Jewish law and Gallio responds straightforwardly that this is entirely about Jewish internal affairs and so Roman law had no bearing on it. Folks: there was no such thing as a separate religion called Christianity until well after New Testament times; not until gentiles gained control of the Jesus movement. And that would not happen for another half century or so from the time of the Book of Acts. So we can say with certainty that as of 52 or 53 A.D., the time of Acts chapter 18, neither the Jews nor the Romans saw any distinction between Jews and members of The Way. They were simply different sects of the same religion: Judaism.
So what did these angry unbelieving Jews do when Gallio refused their request? They took another synagogue leader named Sosthenes and beat him up in full view of Gallio, who expressed no interest in stopping it. The $64,000 question is why was this man beaten? My opinion is that Sosthenes had allowed Paul to speak in the synagogue and so they blamed him for the schism. Other commentators think that perhaps Sosthenes had become a Believer (although you’d think Luke would have said so if that was the case). It may well be for both of these reasons. Some of the confusion on this matter comes from the fact that in the 1st verse of 1st Corinthians we read of Paul addressing his letter as from him and Sosthenes. Could this be the same Sosthenes, head of a synagogue, who perhaps fled with Paul after his beating? Might it be a different Sosthenes (Sosthenes was a reasonably common name)? We just don’t know.
Before we get to verse 18, let’s pause. What we have just read and studied is the condition of the Jewish community in Corinth. We see that not only are unbelieving Jews in a severe rift with believing Jews, but also that the unbelieving Jews were determined to stop any of Paul’s teachings from circulating because it affronted their traditions. What we have here is a volatile situation. Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians was written very shortly after he left Corinth and arrived in Ephesus. So the context of that letter is what we have just read about. Everything he has to say to the Believers in Corinth is said with the troubles that Paul experienced, and what the Believers he is writing to are currently experiencing, as the backdrop. Therefore there could be no better time for us to read some of 1st Corinthians as a sort of extension of Acts chapter 18.
READ 1CORINTHIANS CHAPTERS 1 & 2 all
Just note a few things about the tone and purpose of this letter. First it is an “us versus them” tone. Second it is meant to encourage the Believers there that despite all the opposition and all their fellow Jews who constantly try to talk them out of their faith in Yeshua, they need to stand fast. In 1st Corinthians chapter 1 Paul says: “For the message about the execution stake (the cross) is nonsense to those in the process of being destroyed, but to us in the process of being saved it is the power of God”. And in the final few verses of 1st Corinthians chapter 2 Paul says, “Now the natural man does NOT receive the things of the Spirit of God; to him they are nonsense! Moreover he is unable to grasp them. But the person who has the Spirit can evaluate everything, while no one is in a position to evaluate him.” And he ends with the words: “We have the mind of Messiah”.
So Paul is telling these Corinthian Jewish Believers that even though they are under such pressure by the majority of the Jewish religious community to give it up and return to the long established and accepted Halakhah, that it is the Believers who have it right and so they should not waver. And the reason that they are able to “get it” while so many more Jews in Corinth are unable to “get it’, is because the Believers have the Spirit of God in them while the unbelievers do not.
Let me make application of that for our day. I get literally hundreds of emails, and I have many in this congregation as well as out of town visitors, who all ask me why it is that they can see so plainly that our Messiah is Jewish, that the Bible is of course a Hebrew document born in a Hebrew culture, that God continues to love Israel as His firstborn (He hasn’t rejected them and replaced Israel with the Church), and that the Torah and the entire Old Testament are as alive and relevant to us as the New, when most of their friends and family can’t? And why does the vast majority of the Church not get it either? Mankind is used to measuring truth and right according to consensus. If more people believe differently than what I believe, then they must be right and I must be wrong because they have more people on their side. Paul flatly refutes that notion as he says the consensus of humans is not the measurement of rightness; rather the presence of the Holy Spirit and His teaching is how rightness is determined.
My Hebrew Roots and Messianic friends, to use Paul’s words and tone, we are right and they are wrong. The only proper way to not only a right relationship with God, but a right approach to living a redeemed life, is by returning to a balanced teaching on God’s Grace along with a renewed devotion to obedience to the Heavenly Father. It takes a lot of courage, fortitude and faith to swim against the current stream of Christian thinking that anything-goes, and truth is whatever you discern to be, just as long as we love one another. But if Yeshua and His 12 disciples could do it in the face of being ostracized from their community, and threatened with prison, torture and death, can we not stand strong merely in the face of disagreement, mild criticism, and perhaps being shunned by a few? In fact I must conclude from what we read throughout the Bible and comparing it to actual life experience, it is that if we are not seen as pariahs to the mainstream religious institutions, we are probably on the wrong side.
CJB Luke 14:26 "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father, his mother, his wife, his children, his brothers and his sisters, yes, and his own life besides, he cannot be my talmid”.
Following God and living our lives in the Biblically mandated way have consequences. But it also brings us the greatest rewards.
Vs. 18 of Acts 18 says that after the incident with Paul being dragged before Gallio, he continued on in Corinth for a while before leaving for Syria, but only after he had his hair cut short for a vow in a place called Cenchrea. Apparently the Jewish couple Aquila and Priscilla agreed to accompany him. No doubt the trip to Syria was to take him full circle back to Antioch and end his 2nd missionary journey there.
What are we to make of this vow that Paul made, part of which included ceremonially cutting his hair? First, Cenchrea was a port city near Corinth; it was where he caught a ship to sail to back home. The issue of the hair cutting sounds very much like a Nazarite vow that Paul might have undertaken; what exactly the vow was about we don’t know. Scholars argue fiercely over this verse because for one thing, if one looks closely at the Nazarite vow as outlined in the Torah, it is hard to see where it fits in this story. The Mishna has a great deal to say about vows such as the reasons for entering into one: reasons such as healing, returning home safely from war, and praying for a son. But it also speaks in detail about the various protocols and rituals that could be legitimately employed in vow making and those that could not. So what we find is that vows were on the one hand seen as something to be wary of and to be honored at all costs; but on the other hand it is clear that vows were popular and done regularly such that clear instruction was offered about it.
So because any kind of detail or nuance is completely lacking about Paul’s vow, we’ll not speculate too much. What we can know, however, is that this doesn’t precisely follow the Torah Law about Nazarite vows, however it does seem to follow Jewish tradition and custom; Halakhah. This fact is significant because it shows Paul continuing to adhere to traditional Judaism as a matter of course; it shows him following Jewish Law many years after encountering the risen Messiah on the road to Damascus. Clearly Paul did not find the entire institution of Jewish Law, Halakhah, as wrong minded or something to be abandoned upon faith in Christ. And Paul was also not in process of moving away from a Jewish identity to a gentile Christian one. The Jewish Paul was remaining Jewish.
The ship he is on makes a port call at Ephesus. And because Ephesus was of good size it too had a synagogue. There he preached to the Jews about Messiah. Nothing is said about his success or failure, only that they hoped he would stay longer so obviously he was far better received in Ephesus than he had been in Corinth. But his schedule wasn’t his own; when the time came for his ship to continue its journey he would have to go. It was during this short stay in Ephesus that he wrote his famous letter to the Corinthians that has since become a book of the Bible. However he promised that if it was on God’s agenda, he would come back to Ephesus and teach them more. The ship’s destination was the harbor at Caesarea Maritima.
Next week we’ll follow Paul as he first goes to Jerusalem and then north to the synagogue in Antioch that was sponsoring his missionary journeys.
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