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Paul’s years in Ephesus are perhaps his most fruitful times in ministry. Witherington comments that Luke intends this unit to be a “lasting model of what a universalistic Christian mission ought to look like” (Acts, 573). It is perhaps strange to think of this as the third missionary journey, since Paul stays in Ephesus for three years. This is Paul’s longest period of settled ministry and perhaps the most fruitful time in his entire career. Christianity does in fact spread throughout Asia Minor and Ephesus becomes a center for Christianity into the early middle ages.
As is his usual pattern, Paul begins at a synagogue (19:8-9). As we have come to expect by this point in Acts, Ephesus had a large Jewish population as well (Josephus, Antiq. 14.225-227, 16.162-168, 172-173). That Paul meets several important Jewish Christians in Ephesus (Aquila and Priscilla, Apollos, as well as some disciples of John) indicates the importance of Ephesus to the Jews.
Paul is able to spend three months in the synagogue arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. Paul is described as speaking freely (παρρησιάζομαι), the same verb used to describe Apollos in the synagogue (18:26) as well as Paul and Barnabas in the synagogue in Psidian Antioch (13:46). The word refers to boldness or fearlessness in speech. Paul is not holding anything back in his time in the synagogue. The phrase “kingdom of God” likely refers to a whole range of topics Paul preaches on in synagogues. This would include arguing Jesus is the messiah, but also that the messiah would die and rise again.
Luke chooses an important word to describe the negative response of the synagogue to Paul’s preaching. The NIV’s “obstinate” (σκληρύνω) is used in the Septuagint to describe hard-heartedness toward the word of God. For example, this the word used in Exodus for Pharaoh’s hear (4:3). In LXX Jer 7:26 the prophet describes resistance to the word of the Lord as “stiffening the neck.” In the Second Temple period, the writer of PsSol 8:28-29 says the nation “stiffened their neck” and was sent into exile as a result.
These Jews are acting like their forefathers, a point made also by Stephen in Acts 7. The word describes a choice not to believe something, but also the fact that this stubbornness leads to a stronger unbelief. This can be seen in the “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus (or Rom 9:18). He chose to be stubborn, and then the Lord increased his stubbornness as judgment.
Unlike Paul’s previous experience in Philippi or Thessalonica, he is able to remain in the city of Ephesus for a long time, perhaps as long as three years. In fact, Paul’s time in Ephesus might be his most successful ministry described in the book of Acts. What contributes to this success? Does Paul do anything different in Ephesus? Or is this a matter of being at the right place at the right time?
The city of Corinth was an important cosmopolitan city in the middle part of the first century. (Was Corinth more sinful than other Roman cities? Click the link for my comments about that longstanding misunderstanding of history, as well as a followup comment from a read.) It was economically stable, attracting a wide range of businesses from all over the Empire. Paul established the church in this city for this very reason. Once Christianity takes hold in Corinth, the local churches themselves can continue the mission of spreading the gospel throughout the region.
In choosing as one of his main missionary centers a city in which only the tough were reputed to survive, Paul demonstrated a confidence oddly at variance with his protestations of weakness. Corinth, however, offered advantages that outweighed its dangers. In addition to excellent communications, the extraordinary number of visitors (Dio Chrysostom, Or. 37.8; Aelius Aristides, Or. 46.24) created the possibility of converts who would carry the gospel back to their homelands. In contrast to the closed complacency of Athens, Corinth was open and questioning, eager for new ideas but neither docile nor passive, as Paul’s relationship with the Christian community there amply documents (Murphy-O’Connor, ABD 1:1138).
Yet of all of Paul’s churches, this one seems to have had the most difficulties assimilating Christianity and their culture.
The books of 1 and 2 Corinthians deal with a number of problems that arose after Paul left the city. Why did Paul not deal with them as a part of his regular training of new believers and church leaders? What happened in Corinth that brought these particular problems to the forefront only after Paul left the city?
The thesis of Bruce Winter’s After Paul Left Corinth is that after Paul left the city the church began to explore how Christianity interacted with their Greco-Roman culture and social relationships. Their culture was a thoroughly Roman world-view, but it was also a world-view in flux.
There were several de-stabilizing factors in first century Corinth.
First, the institution of yearly festivals in the imperial cult. Participation in these festivals was something a Roman citizen would have associated with loyalty to Rome, a loyalty that the citizens of Corinth took very seriously.
Second, the Isthmian Games were based in Corinth, and there is evidence that when the games were celebrated the President of the games hosted a festival for Corinthians who were Roman citizens. In 8:9 there is a reference to having the “freedom” to eat; the Greek word is “authority,” or perhaps “right” to eat. Paul may be referring to these sort of elite social connections that some in the church had the right/freedom to participate in. Can a Christian really participate in this meal as a follower of Christ?
Third, Winter cites evidence that there were three severe grain famines in the first century that effected Corinth. There are ten inscriptions from Paul’s time that honor the “superintendent of the grain.” This office had the power to manage grain sales in an effort to keep prices down and supply flowing. This could involve a taxation system that paid for grain for the poor, or even a flooding of the market with grain in order to drive prices down. Even rumors of famine were enough to cause riots and generally de-stabilize an economy.
Last, the most difficult issues revolved around Roman cultural and social practices. In 1 Cor 3:3 Paul says that the church is “still worldly,” literally that they are thinking like the people of Corinth, not the people of God. The Christians in Corinth failed to see how the Roman world impacted their life in Christ.
Does this cultural background help us understand “what happened” in Corinth? Why did the church mis-handle so many of the challenges to their new faith in Christ? Is the Corinthian experience much different than Christianity in the modern West?
Bibliography: Bruce Winter, After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2001).
After several very difficult experiences in Philippi and Thessalonica and an unfruitful visit to Athens, Paul finally experiences some good success in Corinth. After preaching in the synagogue he establishes a church that includes several key converts. Luke lists Titius Justus, a god-fearing Gentile and Crispus, the leader of the synagogue. Both of these were leaders in the synagogue and would have been valuable to Paul as leaders in a new church. A third convert is implied in Romans 16:23 – Erastus, the “director of public works” (NIV) or city treasurer. If Erastus was a convert at this time he would have brought some wealth and prestige to the church. In addition to these converts, Aquilla and Priscilla were in Corinth and eventually the teacher Apollos
Paul may have been concerned his success would breed a violent back-lash from the synagogue, as it had in Thessalonica. In fact, Paul has seen this happen before. The normal pattern is for him to enter the synagogue and face serious persecution. He is not afraid for his own life, in fact, he seems more than willing to suffer physically for the Gospel.
1 Cor 2:3-4 indicates that Paul was afraid his ministry was destined for failure. He does not yet know of the fate of the Thessalonican believers, perhaps even Berea is unknown to him. Athens likely did not result in a church. Will Corinth go just as badly? Yet in 1 Cor 2, Paul claims that any success in Corinth was based solely on the power of the Holy Spirit, not his own rhetorical ability.
In Acts 18:9-10 Luke tells us that Paul has a vision in which the Lord tells Paul that he will not be harmed in the city of Corinth and that there are many people in the city that are “the Lord’s.” There are three short, related commands: Do not fear, continue to speak, and do not be silent.
If these commands reflect Paul’s mood prior to Silas and Timothy’s return, then it is possible that Paul considered, like Jeremiah before him, to remain silent and not open himself up to further persecution (Jer 20:7-12). But like Jeremiah, Paul cannot keep the Gospel to himself, he must be what he is, the light to the Gentiles. Even if this means he will be persecuted. This vision encourages him to continue, since his Gospel message will be received in Corinth. He will remain in the city 18 months, Paul’s longest place of ministry since his commission from Antioch in Acts 13.
An important observation here is Paul’s success was met with increased jealousy and persecution. Paul was obedient to his calling yet he was still suffering. Why is this? To what extent is Luke describing a successful ministry as a persecuted ministry? Compared to what some modern Christians seem to think, this is the opposite of what to expect. Yet for Paul, suffering confirmed he was doing exactly what God called him to do.
Paul quotes two Greek writers as support for his case that the creator God does not need temples or temple services from humans. The use of this material has always prompted discussion among readers of Acts, especially with respect to application. Is Paul modelling how Christians ought to present the gospel in a non-Christian, non-Jewish environment?
The first allusion is to Epimenides the Cretan, the poet Paul cited in Titus 1:12. The original poem no longer exists, but fragments appear in other ancient writers. The second citation is from Aratus, a Cilcian poet (Phaenomena 5). The original line, “in him we move and live and have our being,” was pantheistic, but Paul spins this line into a statement about God as the source of our life.
In other words, he ignores the writer’s original intention so that he can effective make his point. If Aratus had been in the audience in Acts 17, what would he have said in response to Paul? In modern scholarly writing, misrepresenting another scholar’s ideas is not just a mistake, but intellectual dishonesty. Someone who does this sort of thing today would be dismissed as a poor scholar or a crank (or possibly just a biblio-blogger). In some areas of scholarship, authorial intent is not important, so perhaps Paul is not out of line here. Can Paul legitimately pull this line out of context and reapply it to prove the God of the Bible is superior to the other gods?
A second problem is how Paul came to know these lines of poetry. There are not many modern readers who can quote freely from current poets or philosophers. One possibility is Paul had some secular education which could be applied to the preaching of the gospel. We might imagine Paul thinking through his task of being a light to the Gentiles and researching possible points of contact in order to preach to pagan audiences. This is in fact a typical way of doing apologetics today. Christians will study philosophy for the purpose of interacting with the philosophical world in their own terms.
While I do not think this kind of cultural education is a bad idea at all, that may not be Paul’s point in using these sources (or, Luke’s point in presenting Paul as using these sources). These lines may have been well known proverbial wisdom, common knowledge. If so, then the allusion to Greek poets is more like the preacher who uses a common phrase in order to make his point.
Or better, this is an example of a modern pastor quoting lyrics of popular songs to make a point. I occasionally use a line from a popular movie or song in order to make a point (although with my taste in music, it usually does not work very well). This comes down to knowing your audience. I have found that I can get a lot further with college age group with a Simpsons reference, while the same line is lost on an adult group. Perhaps that is what Paul is doing here in Acts 17 – he is riffing on the culture.
In both of the allusions Paul simply intends to demonstrate his thinking is not too far from the culture the audience understood and appreciated. To cite the Hebrew Bible would have been fruitless since the audience did not know it, nor were they inclined to listen to philosophy drawn Jewish texts.
Does this mean Acts 17 gives permission for Pastors to quote Bob Dylan lyrics or use Simpsons clips in their sermons and Bible studies? Perhaps, but we need to couple cultural reference with a serious point from the text of the Bible. It is one thing to mimic culture to attract attention to you point, but it is a fairly worthless strategy is if there is no point behind the reference. I think that you can (and should) illustrate serious theological points via cultural artifacts (like poets, books, movies, etc.), but this can be very dangerous if it overwhelms the Scripture.
If the message of the Gospel is obscured by the using Fifty Shades of Grey as a sermon title, or by playing U2 songs during your worship, or hosting a Dancing with the Stars night at church, then you have missed Paul’s point in Acts 17.
The Athens of the first century was a shadow of its glorious past. The golden age of Athens was some 500 years before Paul visited the city, but it was nevertheless an impressive city. The emperors Augustus and Claudius both made generous donations to maintain public buildings and even Herod the Great donated statues to the city. Jews lived in Athens as early as the fourth century B.C. 2 Maccabees 6:1-2 refers to an Athenian senator sent by Antiochus IV Epiphanes to Jerusalem to persuade the Jews to give up on their traditions (Schnabel, 2:1174).
Despite the reputation of the city, there is a certain amount of prejudice in Luke’s description of Athens. “All they do is sit around and talk philosophy all day!” (Acts 17:21). Even though this might have been respectable to some, Luke’s description of the philosophical activity seems negative.
As for Paul, he is distressed by the idolatry of the city. Luke uses a phrase here which means something like “shaken in his spirit,” but can also mean “provoked to wrath”(παροξύνω, BDAG). In the LXX, both Hos 8:5 and Zech 10:3 use the word for God’s anger over the idolatry of his people (cf. PsSol 4:21). As a Jew, Paul was not just annoyed by the idolatry he saw, but increasingly angry! Yet Paul follows his usual ministry pattern, reasoning with people in the synagogue and in the marketplace. The synagogue and marketplace were the two places he thought he would meet groups interested in his gospel.
In the marketplace, Paul encounters a group of philosophers who recognize Paul as presenting a new teaching. Luke specifically mentions Stoics and Epicureans, two popular philosophical traditions. Although the Stoics were a school of philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium (335-263 B.C.), they continued to have an influence on Roman society in the middle of the first century. Seneca represents the Later Stoa, or Roman Stoicism. Seneca (A.D. 1-65) was born into an equestrian family and was the tutor of Nero until he was forced to commit suicide for allegedly plotting against the emperor. Because Seneca talks about God in very warm and personal terms some early Christian writers “adopted” Seneca (Tertullian referred to him as “always our Seneca” and at least one apocryphal tale was written concerning letters exchanged between Paul and Seneca.
The Epicureans take their name from their founder, Epicurus (341-270 B.C.). He argued “good” was pleasure and the avoidance of pain, so a person ought to live their life in such a way as to seek the “good” – pleasure. His statement “It is not possible to live happily without living prudently, honorably, and justly” is remarkably close to the Judeo-Christian ethic, similar to Micah 6:8 in fact.
Epicureans and Stoics were the chief rivals for the hearts of intellectual people in the Hellenistic age. Both emphasized a high level of moral values and both looked to the philosophical way of life the only way to be truly happy and content. And both have some affinity with early Christianity, but is it clear from Paul’s speech that Christianity is a rival to these two great philosophies? In what ways does Paul’s sermon create connections to Greek philosophy yet remain clearly distinct from them? In other words, how does Paul function in the “marketplace of ideas” the Greco-Roman world?
Bibliography: Charles, J Daryl. “Engaging The (Neo) Pagan Mind: Paul’s Encounter With Athenian Culture As A Model For Cultural Apologetics (Acts 17:16-34).” Trinity Journal 16 (1995): 47-62.
After a successful time in the synagogue in Thessalonica, charges are made against Paul before the local Roman authorities (Acts 17:1-9). The charges against Paul are significant: he is accused of “defying the decrees of Caesar” and “advocating another king, Jesus.” Given the recent history of Thessalonica, these are dangerous charges indeed.
First, Paul and his companions are troublemakers. This could be standard rhetoric, although it does seem that wherever Paul goes there is trouble. But Rome did not particular care for trouble-makers. In fact, this phrase (οἱ τὴν οἰκουμένην ἀναστατώσαντες οὗτοι) literally means the ones who are turning the world upside down.” Kavin Rowe uses this phrase as the title for his excellent book subtitled “Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age.” As he points out in his chapter on Acts 17, to “turn the world upside down” is a grave accusation in the Roman world (p. 96). Luke used the phrase later in Acts to describe the revolutionary activities of the Sicarii, actions that will result in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem (Acts 21:38). It is possible to take this phrase not as “they are troublemakers” but rather as “they are rebels against the Roman Empire.”
Second, they subvert the decrees of Caesar. In 1 Thess 1:9 Paul says that the congregation has “turned form idols.” Obviously any pagan Gentiles saved during Paul’s time in the city would have turned from whatever idols they worshiped. But this “turning from idols” must have included the Roman cult. If this is the case, then turning from the Roman cult could be understood as an act of disloyalty. It is possible then that Gentile God-fearers still participated in some form of official cult, despite worshiping in the synagogue.
Third, they advocate another king, Jesus. In 1 Thess 4 and 5 Paul clearly teaches that Jesus is coming back in power and he will establish his own glorious kingdom (1 Thess 2:19, for example). This could easily be understood in terms of a change of emperors, that the empire of Rome was about to be supplanted with the empire of Jesus. It is clear, at least for Kavin Rowe, that “the figure to whom King Jesus is juxtaposed is beyond a doubt the Roman emperor” (p. 99).
Fourth, Paul’s preaching of the gospel challenges the truth of pax Romana. In 1 Thess 5:3, Paul says that when Jesus returns, it will be at a time when people are saying “peace and safety,” but they will in fact be destroyed. Peace and security is exactly what was promised by the Empire, pax Romana meant that the empire was a safe and peaceful place to live. Paul says there that the peace of Rome is an illusion.
All of this points to the radical nature of Paul’s gospel from a Roman perspective. After the Jerusalem Council, we are well aware of how radical the gospel is from a Jewish perspective. But now we see how dangerous the idea of Jesus can be from a Roman imperial perspective. Paul is declaring that Jesus is the Real King and that his empire of peace is going to overwhelm the so-called peace of Rome. This alternative way of viewing the world provoked violent reactions from Rome.
All this leads me to wonder how we can present this “radical” the Gospel to the world today. Does the message of the Grace of God really appear to be “turning the world upside down”?
While walking through the marketplace, Paul and Silas encounter a girl possessed with the “spirit of Python” (πνεῦμα πύθωνα). The Python was the serpent or dragon that guarded the Delphic oracle at Mt. Parnassus. Apollo was also the god most associated with prophecy in the Greek world, but particularly the priestesses who were associated with the Delphic Oracle. Keener points out most Greek readers of this story would find the story perplexing since a spirit like this giving clearly identifying Paul in this way would be viewed more or less positively (3:2429). A Greek might think this particular oracle was a positive witness.
If this is the case, why does Paul cast out the demon if it is not actually telling a lie at the time? Or, why does the demon force the girl to identify Paul and Silas in this way? Perhaps Paul was not interested in having the spirit of Python as a witness. The true witness in Acts is the Holy Spirit. The demon may have identified Paul in this way in order to show its power over Paul, in the sense of “I know who you really are, etc.” In Luke 8:28 a demon identifies Jesus as the Most High God. In both cases the demon is attempting to express power over a potential exorcist.
On the other hand, Paul as a “servant of the Most High God” may have been understood in Philippi as a reference to Zeus (Schnabel, Paul the Missionary, 94). When Jews or Christians hear the phrase they assume that the reference is to the God of the Bible. But the people of Philippi would not make this assumption. The demon is therefore very misleading since Paul does not serve the “Most High God” from the Roman perspective.
The slave girl’s pronouncement is not a single occurrence, but rather an ongoing problem for Paul. It is as if this slave girl is following him around all day! Luke uses the verb διαπονέομαι (diaponeomai), “to be deeply distressed” or “to be greatly annoyed.” This is the same verb used earlier in Acts 4:2 to describe the feeling of the Sanhedrin over the preaching of the apostles (ie., that Jesus was raised from the dead), and it is the word found in LXX Gen 6:6 for God’s grief over the sin of the world prior to the flood. Paul is not merely annoyed, he is deeply distraught at the situation and casts out the demon without any ritual at all.
What is the point of this story? Keener suggests this story contributes to Luke’s overall theme that “nothing can hinder the Gospel” (3:2420). This includes a very powerful demonic spirit, the “most high god” and even the local political leaders in Philippi. Perhaps Luke includes the story to draw a literary parallel to Luke 8:26-33 where another demon identifies someone as the Most High God.
When Paul begins to work in a new location, he often visits a local synagogue first. But when Paul arrives in Philippi he visits worshipers by a river because there was no synagogue in the city. Access to water was an important factor for Diaspora Jews, so it is not unusual to find a group worshiping at a river. Since Luke calls this “a place of prayer,” Keener suggests this is not a group that would normally constitute a synagogue (3:2387). Since Paul talks to the women at the river, it is possible this is a group of Jewish women gathered to pray on the Sabbath. It is somewhat ironic Paul responds to a vision of a man calling him to preach in Macedonia by visiting a group of women praying on the Sabbath.
Lydia was worshiping with the Jewish women outside of the city near a stream. She is identified as a “worshiper of God” (σεβομένη τὸν θεόν) from Thyatira, implying she was a Greek who was attracted to the practice of Judaism. Gentile women were often attracted to Judaism, so much so that Celsus could complain Christian spread through women (Keener 3:2391).
It is possible Lydia was a wealthy freedwoman and perhaps a widow. She invites Paul and his travelling companions to her home, which implies a larger than average home, Keener suggests a domus, a Roman house with an atrium with ample space to host a new church (3:2404). While she was probably not among the elite of the city, Luke does include several reports of prominent people accepting the gospel in the book. Since her husband is not mentioned in Acts 16, it is possible Lydia was widowed, giving her some wealth and independence.
Some have understood her job as a “seller of purple” is sometimes taken to imply a higher-than-average status. She ran an export business moving purple-dyed goods from Thyatira to Philippi. Purple goods were costly, so there is an implication that Lydia was wealthy. Sellers of purple are sometimes included in “Caesar’s household” (NewDocs, 2:26). Since Lydia is a Greek woman worshiping the God of Israel, she is a close parallel to Cornelius in status. This is another intentional parallel between Peter and Paul: both preach the gospel to a prominent God-fearer.
Luke says “the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to believe.” This is similar to Luke 24:45; Jesus opens the hearts of his disciples so that they could understand the scripture. Lydia believers because the Lord enables her to understand and accept the Gospel as Paul preached it. A similar usage appears in 2 Macc 1:4, may the Lord “open your hearts” (διανοίξαι τὴν καρδίαν ὑμῶν) to understand his commandments.
As a result of Lydia’s faith, her household comes to faith in Jesus and she offers hospitality to Paul and his ministry team. Keener considers this a potentially “scandalous hospitality” since teachers who attracted too many female followers were suspicious. But in the context of Luke 16, a male prison guard will also offer hospitality to Paul (16:34). Like the members of the Jerusalem church selling property to support community, Lydia opens her home and (apparently) hosts the growing church at Philippi.
There are several reasons the story of Lydia is important in Acts, but also as a point of application when reading the book of Acts. What does Paul reaching out to this particular woman say for “doing church” today? How can this story be a model for ministry?
In Acts 16:3, Paul circumcised Timothy, a Hellenistic Jew who begins to travel with Paul during the second missionary journey. The problem is Paul’s reasons for circumcising Timothy at this time. The whole point of the conference in Acts 15 was to deal with the issue of circumcision for converts. Gentile converts should not be circumcised since they are not under the Mosaic Covenant. One option is to dismiss this story as a fiction created by Luke to create the appearance of unity in the Early Church (F.C. Baur). Since it does not seem likely the Paul of Galatians would have circumcised Timothy, this story is taken as evidence Luke to not know Paul or the letter of Galatians. Or perhaps Paul was just inconsistent in the application of the decision of the council.
The traditional answer for this dilemma is rooted in Luke’s description of Timothy’s parents in Acts 16:3. Since his mother was a Jew, his father was a Greek, he would have been considered ethnically Jewish. The ruling that the one’s status as a Jew was traced through the mother’s line dates back to the time of Ezra and the Mishnah includes a similar ruling often dated to the first century (m.Qidd 3:12). While it is not absolutely certain that matrilinear descent was always followed in the first century, there appears to be enough evidence to say that likely was (Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, 664, n.23).
Shayne Cohen has challenged the relevance of these texts and argued Timothy was actually a Gentile who happened to have a Jewish mother (“Was Timothy Jewish (Acts 16:1-3): Patristic Exegesis, Rabbinic Law, And Matrilineal Descent,” JBL 105 : 251-268). He states “The Roman law of persons is completely irrelevant” for this case since there is no hint either of Timothy’s parents were Roman citizens. The Rabbinic texts often cited cannot be dated to the first century with any certainty. For Cohen, Ezra use of matrilineal descent is not relevant since it is not mentioned again in any Second Temple document other than the implication in Acts 16:3. Even if matrilineal descent was a principle in the first century, there is no evidence Hellenistic Jews in Asia Minor would have recognized it as valid. Finally, Cohen points out that no other New Testament text implies Timothy was a Jew. Even 2 Tim 1:5 does not require Timothy to be Jewish.
Yet Timothy is circumcised in Acts 16:3. I think it is wrong think Timothy was forced to be circumcised. He was complete agreement with Paul on this matter! I suggest that despite Cohen’s objections, from the perspective of the most observant Jew in Asia Minor, Timothy was a Jew, not a Gentile. Luke also tells us the reason Paul circumcised him was pressure from the Jews in Lystra and Iconium. They presumably knew Timothy was not circumcised and they would have made Timothy’s status with respect to the covenant the central issue whenever Paul attempted to preach the Gospel in a Jewish community.
Craig Keener sees this incident as an example of Luke’s literary-theological agenda (3:2321). After achieving unity on the issue of Gentile circumcision, Luke reports Paul did not excuse Jewish Christians from circumcision. Luke intentionally told this story after Acts 15 to emphasize the fact Paul was not a threat to Jewish heritage.
Does Paul do the right thing in requiring Timothy to keep the Law, even though he argues passionately in Galatians that those who are “in Christ” are not “under Law?”
[This is another post by a student in my Advanced Acts Studies seminar class, Camron Befus. Camron prepared a lecture on the conflict between Barnabas and Paul, so I asked him to write two blog posts on the topic.]
Barnabas wishes to take his cousin John Mark on a second missionary journey Paul has proposed. But Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had already deserted them in Pamphylia and not continued with them in the work. They had such a “sharp disagreement that they parted company…” (Acts 15:38-39). Luke uses the word παροξυσμὸς for “sharp disagreement,” which is an odd choice of words to describe Paul’s disagreement. The word most often is used as “to stir to anger,” “to be irritated,” to do something that causes a person to get upset at a person. This is exactly what happened to Paul, as he was “provoked to anger” by Barnabas request.
This word is used in the Septuagint to describe God’s anger or wrath when he is provoked:
Deuteronomy 1:34-35 “When the Lord heard what you said, he was angry and solemnly swore: “No one from this evil generation shall see the good land I swore to give your ancestors…”
Deuteronomy 29:27 “Therefore the Lord’s anger burned against this land, so that he brought on it all the curses written in this book.”
Jeremiah 32:37 (LXX 39:37) “I will surely gather them from all the lands where I banish them in my furious anger and great wrath; I will bring them back to this place and let them live in safety.”
Luke describes Paul as being very angry at Barnabas wishing to bring John Mark along, and we quickly see they even split up because of this disagreement. From Luke’s perspective Paul evidently believed he is in the right in this discussion. Luke chooses a word commonly used to describe the unfaithfulness of the Israelites towards God to describe Paul’s anger. Did Luke use this word because he was agreeing with Paul decision to be against John Mark coming on the trip? Or did Luke use this strong of a word for this disagreement because he was disappointed in Paul having such a strong reaction against his companion?
Some scholars believe Paul is the one who is in the wrong: he did not wait for the Holy Spirit’s leading to go on a second missionary journey. It was the Holy Spirit who had moved Paul and Barnabas to be commissioned and go on the first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-4). Perhaps God used Paul’s impatience to show him that good does not come from not waiting on God.
Paul was not going to change his mind about bringing John Mark and Barnabas must have felt the same way, so they parted ways. Their solution to the problem was to continue reaching the Gentiles, although they will no longer work together. Barnabas took John Mark to Cyprus and Paul recruited Silas and went to Derbe. They went to the towns Paul had visited on his first missionary journey.
What did Luke intended by using this particular word to describe Paul’s anger? Who was in the right in this conflict over John Mark?