Acts Week 1
By Jack Levison
W. J. A. Power Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Hebrew, Southern Methodist University
Let’s start off with a quiz. After all, this website connects us all to a university. And who doesn’t love an exam? So here goes:
- What do healing hankies, seven sons who streak away stark naked, and a sleepy boy who falls out of a window have in common?
- What do Herod Agrippa I, proconsuls Sergius Paulus and Gallio, Antonius Felix, Herod Agrippa II, and Porcius Festus have in common?
- What do a seamstress, a leather tanner, and a Roman centurion have in common?
Don’t peek at the answers yet. This isn’t a very hard exam. (And, as I tell my students, you don’t want to get caught cheating on a Bible exam. It’s just not right!) Now look at the answers:
- They’re all in the book of Acts.
- They’re all in the book of Acts.
- They’re all in the book of Acts.
And not only are they all in the book of Acts, they define the book of Acts — or at least key emphases of the book of Acts. Let’s look at each more closely.
The World of Acts Is Extraordinary
Acts shows a world full of signs above and wonders below (Acts 2:19). This is a world in which Peter, while standing at a door fresh out of prison, is mistaken for an angel (Acts 12:12–17). It is a world in which evil spirits do God’s bidding by chasing evil men away naked (19:13–20). This is a magical world, a heady world, in which hankies that touch the Apostle Paul heal the sick and exorcise the demon-possessed (19:11–12).
This wondrous world creeps even into the first chapter of Acts, where the disciples stand and gaze dumbfounded into the sky, while Jesus ascends into the clouds (Acts 1:6–11). (The other gospel writers manage to get Jesus out of the grave, but Luke is the only one courageous enough to tell a story that gets Jesus out of the picture altogether so that the church can get on with its work.)
Ever since I took an art appreciation (“Art Aprish,” as we called it) class in college, I can’t read the story of the Ascension without thinking of that medieval painting in which Jesus’ feet — and only Jesus’ feet — stick out below the clouds. My imagination was permanently damaged by the professor who showed us that painting; no doubt I’ve impaired a few imaginations myself. Yet that painting, and just about every other painting of the Ascension I’ve seen, makes my point: The world of Acts is a terribly wonderful world. Welcome to this world, reader.
The World of Acts Rides the Rough Road of Hard-nosed Politics
Two-thirds of the way into the book of Acts, you’ll find what looks like a negligible detail: “when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia” (Acts 18:12). You might yawn your way through this little ditty. Don’t. It is a key marker that sets the story of the early church squarely in the concrete world of Roman politics.
Gallio was a Roman proconsul in 52 C.E., give or take a year. So you can fan out from this date, backwards and forwards, and get a clear historical sense of what the church was doing during its first three decades. There are other key dates, but this is the anchor that weighs the early church’s” fellow-ship” to the sands of time (nifty metaphor, huh?).
Harsh and intractable political realities, in other words, suffuse the magical world of Acts. And Gallio the Roman proconsul is a good example of this unyielding reality. The Jews under Gallio’s jurisdiction in Corinth wanted him to squash Paul like a bug, because, they said, “This man is persuading people to worship God in ways that are contrary to the law [to Torah]” (Acts 18:13). Paul began to defend himself, but Gallio responded first, “Who cares?” — or something like that. No violence? No villainy? Then no Gallio!
The Jews responded by seizing a certain Sosthenes, an otherwise unknown synagogue official, and, for reasons we can’t even guess except perhaps to provoke the Roman proconsul Gallio to do something, they “beat him in front of the tribunal” — to which Gallio “paid no attention” (Acts 18:17). Violence? Villainy? Still no Gallio! The seasoned and cynical proconsul refuses to soil his hands — he’s not about to wash them, like Pilate, as a tacit admission of guilt — and simply ignores the brutal goings-on at his doorstep.
Politics permeate the book of Acts. Luke labors desperately to show that the early church was still Jewish, because Judaism, not Christianity, was a legal, or licit, religion in the Roman Empire. Jews had rights. If the fledgling followers of Jesus were to split off from Judaism the way many Midwesterners want California to split off from North America, they’d lose whatever rights they possessed as Jews under Roman rule.
Politics, in fact, provide the tempo of the last half of Acts, and the picture isn’t pretty — the way basketball isn’t pretty when good defense determines the tempo of a game. We groan as we wait with Paul for something — anything — to happen, as Chapters 23–26 grind away under the weight of Roman bureaucracy. Details such as “five days later” (Acts 24:1), or “some days later” (24:24), or “three days after” (25:1), or “not more than eight or ten days” (25:6), or “after several days” (25:13) underline the poundage of government, the waiting, entropy, anxiety, frustration, boredom.
Luke’s storytelling is as brilliant as his story is dull. God’s signs and wonders — and the lack of them — take place in real time, tedious time, Roman time.
It’s no surprise to me that the story of Pentecost, with its wind and fire and noise, arrests human imagination, but that keeping faith in the face of Roman indifference barely captures our attention. Yet this too is where we can learn how to be Christian, with each successive postponement of Paul’s dreams — dreams promised, pledged, portended early in the book of Acts, when Peter quotes the words of Joel that young men will see visions and old men will dream dreams (Acts 2:17). This inactivity, those idle days, when dreams evaporate and visions dissipate — they too are the world of Acts. Welcome, reader, to that world.
The World of Acts Is Full of Practical People Doing Mundane Things
It’s easy to miss the many people going about their lives in the world of Acts. After all, initially Peter, then Paul, dominates the skyline of the early church. They are mammoth characters, matching bookends. Peter preaches vigorously, and so does Paul. Peter is a source of grace to non-Jewish nations, and so is Paul. Peter heals the sick (5:14–16), and so does Paul (28:8–10). It’s hard to look past such imposing figures. Everyone else, it seems, is just plain scrawny in comparison.
It’s also easy to miss such practical people doing mundane things, because Luke is so good at giving us the big picture, which he does when he recounts the words of Jesus in Acts 1:8:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Excellent outline. I give it an A+.
Think of Luke’s outline in this way. Draw a point. That’s Jerusalem. Take a small cup, turn it upside down on the map, with most of it above the point, and circle the cup. That’s Judea and Samaria. Then take a big platter and do the same, only stretch the platter to the left so that it covers a wide swath of the Mediterranean Sea and the land to its north. That’s all of the journeys that lead to Rome.
I like the big picture, but the delight is in the details. That’s what S. Gorley Putt told me one very, very late night at Christ’s College, Cambridge.
Gorley was the senior tutor who had personally accepted me to study at Cambridge University. Occasionally, in the wee hours of the night, I would hear a banging on my door (and I lived four flights up in a building built in 1642). “Mr. Levison! Mr. Levison!” he would yell. Then he would drag me to his even more ancient room, sit me down, and dish out pearls to a very tired swine. This was one of them: the delight is in the details. (He also once described some renowned, prize-winning professors as having “hearts the size of walnuts,” but that is for another time.)
The delight is in the details. Glance for a moment behind the majestic outline of Acts and ask yourself about details: How, for example, did Peter or Paul manage to get from Jerusalem to Rome? (Only Paul gets there in the book of Acts, but tradition has it that Peter founded the church in Rome.) How did they do it? Enter practical people doing small and seemingly mundane things.
An Army of Practical People
Not long after Paul was called to be a prophet to the nations, he stayed in Joppa with Simon, whose job was to tan hides — whose sloppy, bloody, reeking, maybe even not-so-kosher job was to use freshly peeled animal flesh to produce leather products (Acts 9:43; 10:5–6). A practical person doing mundane things, if ever there was one. And a man rich in hospitality.
Then there was Lydia, a businesswoman in Philippi who sold cloth that had been dyed purple. You need to know that the word purple denoted the shellfish — mollusks, actually — from which purple dye came. We can’t know whether Lydia was involved directly with producing the dye. If she was, her job was sloppy, reeking, maybe even not-so-kosher (shellfish were strictly verboten by Jewish law). Another practical person doing mundane things, if ever there was one. And a woman rich in hospitality — so rich, in fact, that Paul didn’t persuade her to let him stay. She persuaded him to stay with her: “She urged us,” Luke recalls, “and she prevailed upon us” (16:15). And, after a stint in prison, Paul and Silas went where? To “Lydia’s home” (16:40).
An army of other practical people housed and fed those with the grand mission of taking the good news of Jesus from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and to the ends of the earth — finally settling in Rome. There was Jason in Thessalonica, who “entertained” Paul and Silas “as guests.” When Paul’s Jewish enemies searched for but could not find Paul and Silas, they “attacked Jason’s house” and “dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities” (17:5–9). Quite a price to pay for showing hospitality.
In Corinth, Paul lived with fellow tentmakers Priscilla and Aquila for a year and a half (18:1–4, 11). Paul, we learn from this detail, was himself a practical person who plied a trade. We learn too that Aquila and Priscilla, practical to the core, were willing to give up a share of the market to their friend Paul, whom they also housed.
In Caesarea, on the northern coast of Palestine, Paul stayed with Philip (of Ethiopian eunuch fame) and his four daughters, who were prophets (Acts 21:7–10). En route from Caesarea to Jerusalem, Luke tells us, Paul stayed in the home of Mnason — hardly a figure of mammoth significance in the scope of things, except that he provided hospitality to Paul (21:16). Mnason, like Simon and Lydia and Priscilla and Aquila and Philip, was another step on the great (and somewhat circuitous) journey from Jerusalem to Rome.
When Paul left Jerusalem for Rome in earnest, a whole bunch of unexpected people provided generosity. A Roman centurion, Julius, let Paul visit friends in Sidon. Luke calls him a “philanthropist” (Acts 27:3). The natives of Malta — not a follower of Jesus among them — welcomed survivors of a shipwreck, Paul included, with a warm fire (28:2). Practical people, weren’t they? Hospitable, too.
This practical penchant came straight from the top; their leading man, Publius, though he was not a believer, nevertheless “received us,” Luke says, “and entertained us hospitably for three days” (28:7). Then, in Rome at last, Paul was greeted one more time: “The believers from there, when they heard of us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us.” The impact of this simple act of greeting? “On seeing them,” Luke writes, “Paul thanked God and took courage” (28:15).
Part the curtain of the theological geography in Acts 1:8, and you’ll find flesh and blood. Real actors. Practical people who move the story along a step or two at a time, from Jerusalem to Rome. Welcome, reader, to their world. Their role in Acts is every bit as important as the roles of miracle workers and politicians who play in the world of the powers-that-be.
On a Mission
We’ve got our own journey ahead of us — a journey into the past that can shape, and reshape, our futures.
In the next 10 weeks, as you make your way through the book of Acts — from Jerusalem to Rome — remember that you are entering a magical world of signs and wonders. Remember as well that the people who populate this world ride along a dangerous and frustration-ridden ridge of hard-edged politics.
And remember that they get to where they want to go only because they can spend a night or two or 548 in the homes of apparently insignificant practical people — the kind who make the journey bearable.
Questions for Further Reflection
- Have you read through the book of Acts before? If so, what was most memorable to you? What do you hope to gain from this current study?
- Dr. Levison describes the book of Acts as both extraordinary and mundane. How do you react to these observations? In what ways have you experienced both the extraordinary and the mundane in your own journey of faith?
- The generosity and hospitality of ordinary people is a theme we will encounter throughout Acts. Think of a time when you were a recipient of unexpected or undeserved hospitality. What impact did it have on your life? In what ways might you extend hospitality or generosity in the coming week?
- Spend some time in prayer for your study of Acts, knowing that, as Dr. Levison says, this study of Scripture has the possibility to “… shape and reshape, our futures.”
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