Acts 9:19-22 – Paul in Damascus

After Paul recovers from his blindness, we are told that he spends “some days” with the disciples in Damascus. Paul immediately begins his attempts at evangelism in the Diaspora synagogues, proclaiming that Jesus is the “Son of God” (verse 20). Notice that he immediately begins this preaching, there is no lengthy period of time after his experience before he announces to the synagogues that Jesus was in fact the Messiah. Luke describes the content of Paul’s preaching as “Jesus is the Son of God” and “Jesus is the Messiah.” That Jesus is the Son of God resonates with Psalm 2, a text which has already been used by Peter at Pentecost to show that Jesus is the Messiah.

Damascus-Wall

A Damascus Wall, 1890-1900

This preaching “agitates” the synagogues. The verb here (συγχέω) has the sense of amazement and surprise, but can be used to describe confusion of a crowd about to riot (Acts 19:29, variant text, 21:27). What agitates the synagogues is that Paul is succeeding in proving Jesus is the Christ. Paul is able to teach from the scripture, through the Holy Spirit, in such a way that convinces people. This may not imply the believed, but it was impossible to argue against Paul’s evidence.

Where did Paul get this evidence? On the one hand, boldness in preaching is one of Luke’s evidences that an individual is yielded to the Holy Spirit. Like Peter before the Sanhedrin, Paul is filled with the Holy Spirit and boldly speaks the message of Jesus. A second source for his preaching is likely the preaching of Peter, or better, Stephen in the Synagogue.

Undoubtedly Paul has been arguing with Stephen and other Hellenists in the Synagogue for some time, Paul now accepts their arguments and begins to extend them to other scripture. A third source may be Paul’s own thinking about the Messiah and the Messianic age as a well-trained rabbi.

As observed in the last few posts, Paul does not go from totally ignorant of God to a faithful follower of Jesus. He was already aware of messianic texts and methods of argument in rabbinic discussions as well as how to present scripture in a synagogue context. Paul took what he already knew to be the truth and ran it through the filter of the resurrected Jesus and preached that Gospel in the synagogues in Damascus.

Once again, Luke presents powerful preaching and excellent scholarship working together to convince people of the truth of the Gospel. Paul is extremely confrontational – he goes right to the people who likely wanted the Jesus Community to be silent and announces that he is one of them! This is a boldness which is a direct result of the encounter with Jesus and the filling of the Holy Spirit.

There other elements of a “boldness” theme in Acts and clearly Luke is presenting the ministers of the Gospel as unusually bold in their confrontation with authority.  By way of application, should we use Paul’s boldness as a model for modern mission, and if so, what would that look like?  Does this sort of “boldness” work in a pluralistic society like modern America?

Acts 9 – Was Paul from a Wealthy Family?

In an earlier post I speculated on Paul’s access to wealth during his ministry.  While Paul seems to be willing to live in whatever circumstances his mission require, that mission required a great deal of wealth. He travels with an entourage.

John Polhill speculated that Paul may have been from a wealthy family based on his citizenship.   In order to “buy” a citizenship, one might need to spend 18 months wages or more on the necessary bribes in order to receive the honor.  The fact that Paul was a tent maker from Tarsus may imply that he worked with the costly material cilcium, used for both tents and saddles.

Martin Hengel thought that Paul’s education may be a hint at his social status.  If he came to Jerusalem at a young age, then he was likely from a “well-to-do” family which could afford to send a son to study on Jerusalem. Certainly Schnabel finds this a clear hint that Paul’s family may have had some wealth. It is possible that his family was well-connected among the aristocracy in Jerusalem, permitting them to obtain the services of Gamaliel as a teacher for the young Paul.  Perhaps he was on the fast-track to leadership in the Sanhedrin, explaining why he had access to the High Priest when he wanted to persecute believers in Damascus.

One key bit of evidence is that Paul sponsored a vow in Acts 21.  The Nazarite vow was a Jewish tradition that was supposed to be a deeply spiritual exercise.  To sponsor such a vow would be an indication of Jewish loyalty and fidelity to the Law.  For example, Agrippa I sponsored vows for several young men in order to show his personal loyalty to the law (Josephus, Antiq. 19.294).  Since the expenses for the vow itself could be high, wealthy men could show their support by paying the expenses for one or more men completing their vow. While it is possible Paul took this money from the collection he delivered to Jerusalem, that is not stated in the text.  In any case, taking money intended for the poor in Jerusalem to sponsor the vow does not seem appropriate, the money ought to be come form Paul’s own pocket.

To what extent does Paul’s wealth effect the way he did ministry?  Modern evangelism is often targeted on the “down and out,” people who on the fringes of society.  This is very much like Jesus, and perhaps Peter in Act 9.  Did Paul target wealthy, higher class people (ie., Roman citizens) because he was a wealthy Roman citizen?

Acts 9 – Why did Paul Persecute the Jewish Christians?

Ekhard Schnabel asks this question in Paul the Missionary (44, cf. Early Christian Mission, 2:927-928).  There are rally two questions here.  First, what was the theological motive for Paul’s persecution?  Second, what drove him to pursue Jesus’ followers to Damascus?

Some scholars have argued the Jewish Christians were admitting Gentiles without circumcision.  This seems unlikely, since there is no reference at all to Gentile mission by the Jerusalem Church until Acts 10.  God-fearers were accepted into the synagogue without circumcision, so it is unlikely this would be a problem for Paul, if it had occurred.  Similarly, some argue Gentile believers were not concerned with food traditions.  This too is unlikely for the same reasons as the first, there is no evidence of Gentile converts in the pre-Pauline period.  These two issue are a problem only when a significant number of Gentiles were saved, and especially Gentiles who were not God-Fearers before accepting Jesus as Savior.

A more likely motivation is the possible political / social problems caused by the preaching of a crucified messiah / savior.  How would this play before the Gentiles, especially the Romans?  Could this be an accusation against Rome, and a possible rally-point for anti-Roman activity?   The problem here once again is the lack of evidence for preaching anything to Gentile / Roman audiences.  The early apostolic mission was confined to the temple area and the city of Jerusalem in general.  Remember that the factors which will eventually result in the Jewish War are already in the air some thirty years earlier.  Paul may have been concerned for sparking a revolution by teaching that Jesus is a resurrected King who will return and establish a kingdom.

It is probably best to see Saul opposing the Apostolic teaching as heretical.  That Jesus was the Messiah was absurd, since he was crucified, “hung on a tree,” and therefore a curse, not salvation.  In addition, Schnabel points out that any theology which saw Jesus as Savior is not compatible with the view that salvation comes through faith expressed in obedience to Torah.  A simple example from the gospels will illustrate this point.  When the rich you man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, he understands this in terms of obedience to the foundation of the Law (ie., he keeps all the commandments).  This is not to say Judaism was a “works for salvation” religion, but that one was right with God because God has given Torah and individuals come to God through the perfection of the Torah.

These early followers of Jesus claim that there is no other name by which a person can be saved (Acts 4:12).  Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 concludes with a contrast between the Torah and Jesus. Saul’s motivation is to correct this false teaching within Judaism, using the synagogue punishment system itself.  He likely sees himself as a reformer, working for the high priest, with the goal of dealing sharply with the followers of a condemned Rabbi.

When was Jude Written?

While I have always thought of Jude as rather late (post 70 at least, if not in the 90’s), there are good reasons to date the book earlier. In his WBC volume on Jude and 2 Peter, Richard Bauckham argues that the letter is very early, perhaps as early as A.D. 50.  This reading is based on the use of Jewish apocalyptic style found in the letter.  He finds three elements of the book which lean toward the earlier date:  There is a lively hope for the return of Jesus (14-15).  Secondly, the style of the letter is a Jewish midrash which draws together texts from the Hebrew Bible to argue that the false teachers will face judgment at the Coming of the Messiah.  Finally, there is no hint of church offices in the letter – elders, deacons or bishops, nor is there any appeal to human authority.  The institution of the church is limited when the letter was written.

jude01One serious challenge to this early date is the nature of the opponent.  They seem to be libertine, or even antinomian, which has always made me think that the letter must therefore be written later, after Paul’s death at the very least.  But if the letter is written at the time of Paul’s first missionary journey and the controversy of which led to the Jerusalem council, the issue is quite a bit different from Galatians or James.  In Galatians, Gentiles are discouraged from keeping Law (Paul says “gentiles, your are not converting to Judaism”) and in James Jews are encouraged to continue keeping the Law (James says, “Jews, you are not converting away from Judaism.”)

Jude might give witness to some people who took Paul’s gospel of freedom from law to an extreme and lived a life that was not bound by law at all.  These libertines are not really an issue in Acts 15, but they are in Philippians, perhaps in 1 Thess 4, and certainly a problem in Corinth and Romans 6.  That Paul has to answer the objection, “should we sin that grace may abound” implies that someone was in fact sinning so grace might abound!

What made me wonder is the fact that Jude seems clearly Jewish – it is a midrash constructed from various texts from the Hebrew Bible. If Jude is writing to Jewish Christians who have antinomians in their midst, it seems like these might very well be Jewish Libertines not Gentiles. If that is the case, then Paul’s gospel of freedom from the Law for Gentiles might have had some traction among Hellenistic Jews which led to a rejection of the Law. Perhaps this is the source of James’ concern in Acts 21, that some think that Paul has rejected the Law.

Ethics in Titus

The problem Paul addresses in the letter of Titus is the potential for teachers to arise from within the church who teach bad doctrine and are not living an exemplary life.  In order stave off the sorts of which Timothy has in Ephesus, Titus is told to appoint men to the office of elder who are qualified for the position doctrinally, but also men who are of good reputation and will not bring shame to the churches on Crete.

Is this the right way to think about ethical and moral living?  We should behave properly because the world watches us and is either drawn towards Christ because of our consistency, or they are driven away because of hypocrisy.  One of the biggest factors in the anti-church “Spiritual” movement among younger Christians is dissatisfaction with the structure of church since it seems to harbor hypocrisy.  It is not hard to find examples of hypocrisy in every church and denomination, nor is it hard to find people who have rejected Christianity as a whole because of the actions of public Christians.

There is a great deal which is applicable to the church today since modern churches have the same sort of reputation problems as the churches in Crete.  The members of the church are urged to live exemplary lives in terms of both the Greco- Roman world and the Jewish / Christian world.  The elder qualification list in 1:5-9 begins with “above reproach” – someone who is blameless.  Various social groups are addressed in chapter 2 with the same interest in what outsiders think of the members of the church.  What runs through all five of these sets of commands is the idea of being “sensible.”  There is a derivative of the Greek –sophron– for each of the first four categories of believers. This word has the idea of common sense, which is a cornerstone of Greek virtue.  “The Hellenic model is avoidance of extremes and careful consideration for responsible action” (BDAG, citing Aristotle, EN 3.15).  Common sense was “a characteristic of persons distinguished for public service,” and is used in 1 Tim 3:2 as one of the qualifications of an elder. For a woman, the word could take on the idea of chastity or modesty, also characteristics which were important to the Greek world. In fact, these words occasionally on women’s graves, praising them for their high moral character (BDAG).

In every case, this section highlights the sorts of things which would appeal to the Greco-Roman world.  The moral life of the Christian in Titus 2 ought to be attractive to the outsider, drawing them to Christ not repelling them with hypocrisy.  I think this might cause raise some questions, since most people think that the Greco-Roman world was rather sinful and immoral, but that is just the point.  Greek and Roman writers often decried the decline of moral values, Christianity called people to reject the “passions of the world” and embrace a new kind of life.

In Titus 3:3-11, we find the reason for our living for the sake of the Gospel.  Paul develops a contrast between what the believer was (before Christ) and what the believer is now (in Christ).  The person who is “in Christ” has become new, they have been made alive though the washing of the Holy Spirit, and they are in fact now a child of God.   Paul’s call to devote ourselves to doing good (verse eight) is simply the natural response to this change from foolish suppression of the truth to our adoption as heirs of God.

Titus 3:9-11 – Dealing with Those Who Disagree

Because of these descriptions, scholars have tried to explain these false teachers in several ways: Some have connected the false teachers with either the followers of Marcion (explaining why Marcion would not have accepted the books as authentically Pauline) or a proto-form of Montanism (since the pastorals do not mention the Holy Spirit very much, Montanism was a charismatic revival of the middle/late second century).

Other scholars have suggested that the description of the false teachers is “generic” that there is no specific threat to the churches overseen by Timothy and Titus, but this is the sort of generic anti-heretic language that could be applied to any number of churches.

Could the be a proto-form of Gnosticism or Montanism? This is always possible, depending on the definition of “proto.” The mixture of Greek philosophy and Jewish asceticism that becomes Gnosticism later in the second century may have its roots in the very churches planted by Paul. But the false teachings that the writer is dealing with is not at all close to the Gnostic teachings of the second century. To argue against “foolish myths and genealogies” as Paul does here is applicable in the first century as much as the second (or third or twenty-first!)

Regardless of the source of false teachers in Ephesus and Crete, Paul provides a three-step method for dealing with these troublemakers. The steps seem reasonably clear, but it is hard to know how to use them in a contemporary context. Paul is not describing a medieval excommunication or some sort of strange shunning-ritual. He wants his churches to be unified around a core yet also to preserve some diversity within the members of the church. How does this work?

The first step is to avoid the things which create quarrels and dissensions. This cannot include the core elements of the faith, but what things might be considered “divisive” our context? Paul is talking about drawing lines which include / exclude – how does this “work” in a modern church context?

Second, if there is a person that cannot set their divisiveness aside, then they are to be warned. The text says that the false teacher “stirs up dissension,” indicating that he is looking for an opportunity to argue over his special doctrine. This too becomes a difficult

Last, if the person continues to stir up dissension, then the church is to shun the person as a false teacher. This is very controversial since ostracizing someone from a group is a very “un-American.” Paul seems very prejudiced and arrogant to force someone who believes differently out of the church!

Most likely these steps will look different in different cultures (African churches vs. American churches, for example). How do we use this material to preserve the unity and promote diversity within a local church?

Belief AND Practice – Titus 3:4-8a

This long sentence might be a summary of what Paul means by “sound doctrine” in Titus 2:1.  Gordon Fee called these lines “semi creedal” (1-2 Timothy, Titus, 200)  and nearly all agree that this section was used in some form of liturgy. Paul concludes by declaring this a “trustworthy saying” indicating verses 4-7 that this formulation was well-known to the church.  Since virtually every word can be traced to earlier Pauline writings, it is possible that Paul himself is the source, or someone created the song out of the theology of Paul’s letters. In either case, these few verses are a clear statement of Paul’s understanding of our salvation.

God has acted on our behalf and saved us out of our foolishness (verse 4-5a).  The appearance of the kindness of love of God refers to Jesus. The work of Jesus on the cross is God’s decisive act in history to solve the problem of sin.   Kindness and love are unusual ways to describe God’s motivation for sending Jesus into the world, but the words may reflect the Hebrew idea of hesed, God’s loyalty to his promises and covenant.   Because God is a faithful covenant partner, he acted in Jesus to enable those who are in Christ to keep the covenant in perfection.

Because of Jesus, we can be saved.  The word “saved” is in fact a metaphor which we miss since we use the term so frequently.  We were not just in danger, we were lost and in need to rescue.  In the Psalms David occasionally describes his personal salvation with being pulled out of a flood or a muddy pit, rescued from certain death and set in a level, firm place.

This salvation is not because of “works of righteousness,” rather it is based on the mercy of God.  The idea of “works of righteousness” ought to be understood in the light of the false teachers who likely insisted on things like circumcision or keeping elements of the law.   Rather than a covenant which promises blessings for obedience, this salvation is based entirely on the mercy of God.

This salvation is a rebirth and renewal through the Holy Spirit (verse 5b-6). Paul uses a metaphor in this verse to describe the role of the Holy Spirit in our new birth.  “Washing” (λουτρόν) and the cognate verb (λούω) frequently refers to ceremonial washing which cleanses one from impurity.  The words are used in the context of preparing for worship or entering into the sanctuary.   For example, the verb is used more than a dozen times in Lev 15 in the context of physical impurity. In Lev 8:6 Aaron and his sons are ceremonially washed as they are installed as priests. In Lev 16 the verb is used to describe the washing of the high priest prior to entering the Holy of Holies.

Paul is therefore developing a metaphor which any person living in the first century would have understood.  If we are to be servants of God, we must be cleansed and made holy so that we are able to serve him (as priests in nay religion might have been cleansed).  It is the action of the Holy Spirit at the moment of salvation which “washes us” and makes us right with God. He may have in mind a text like Isa 1:16, where the Lord demands the people wash themselves of their sins, or Isa 4:4 where the filthiness of the nation of Israel will be washed away by a “spirit of judgment” and a “spirit of burning.”

Paul therefore has in mind the rebirth or recreation of the person who is dead in their sins; they are “made alive” in Christ through the Holy Spirit. This is a hint of eschatology here as well, since the dawning of the new age is described with this same term (παλιγγενεσία).  This is the same regenerating work of the Spirit found in 1 Cor 6:1 and Eph 5:26.

The result of our rebirth is our membership in God’s family (verse 7).  Verse seven begins with a purpose clause and an aorist passive participle.  Our membership in God’s family is predicated on our having been made righteous, or justified, by God’s grace.  While he does not make the point here, justification by grace is always “not of works, lest anyone should boast.”  The verb is passive, we do not justify ourselves nor can we create our own righteousness, we are dependent wholly on God’s grace and mercy.

Since we have been justified, we are “heirs” in God’s family. This is an allusion to the theme of adoption from Paul’s earlier letters (Romans 8, for example).  “Be what you are, a child of God.”   This status in God’s family is a guarantee of our future hope.  We know that our inheritance is held by God and that our eternal life is secure in him.

Therefore be devoted to doing good (8b).  To be “devoted” to something (φροντίζω) means to think about it, constantly pursue it, perhaps even to worry about it.  This is more than simply “keep it in mind.”  (I find that when someone says “I’ll keep that in mind” they usually mean, “I am going to ignore what you just said and do what I was going to do anyway.”) The word may be translated “pay attention to” doing good works.

It is remarkable that Paul can say in one line that we are not saved by works, salvation is totally an act of God’s grace, yet in the next line say that we need to do good works. But the order of the lines is critically important!   To reverse them is to destroy the foundation of “sound doctrine” described in these verses.