Acts Week 8

Strange Happenings: Acts 15:36–18:22

By Jack Levison

W. J. A. Power Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Hebrew, Southern Methodist University

Read this week’s Scripture: Acts 15:36–18:22


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The Truth About Community

Well, that’s that, isn’t it? A distinguished council and a well-crafted compromise setting Jews and Gentiles side-by-side in a harmonious whole. Can we all just get along? You bet we can!

Or can we? In the wondrous shadow of the most momentous decision in church history, Paul and Barnabas can’t get along. Barnabas — whose nickname is Son of Encouragement, who stood in the beginning with Paul when no one else would (Acts 9:26–27) and who brought Paul to Antioch to join in a year of hearty teaching (11:25–26) — that Barnabas. 

Barnabas has such a sharp disagreement (a paroxysm in Greek) with Paul over whether to take John Mark with them on their next journey that they split, going their separate ways. Paul takes Silas. Barnabas takes John Mark. Ouch! In the wake of well-built unity … a splinter of anger. [Author’s Note 1]

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Remember the Jerusalem church, how the apostles testified (“witnessed”) to the resurrection of Jesus, how “great grace was upon them all,” and how believers in Jerusalem — people like Barnabas — sold their possessions to give to the poor “as any had need”? Into this love fest, enter Ananias and Sapphira. Ouch! In the wake of generosity … a splinter of greed.

Then, not too long after the Jerusalem Council, Paul decides to circumcise Timothy “because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek” (Acts 16:3). What? What! What! Haven’t Paul and Barnabas just argued in Jerusalem that circumcision is pointless for Gentiles? Haven’t they recounted “all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles” (15:12)? Aren’t they, in the very next line, said to be travelling “from town to town,” where “they delivered to them for observance the decision that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem” (16:4)? What decision? Circumcision is unnecessary! Yet now Paul circumcises Timothy. Ouch! (Really: ouch!) In the wake of a courageous church compromise … a splinter perhaps of buckling to peer pressure. [Author’s Note 2]

Welcome to community. No matter how winsome and welcoming a church may seem, no matter how grand its sanctuary, how sophisticated its organ or sound system, how brilliant its preacher, how vibrant its outreach, no matter whether the greeting time drips over the edges until the minister urges everyone back in place — no matter how harmonious and whole, there are always rough edges and broken relationships between good people, like Paul and Barnabas. There are always decisions that are two steps backwards, like Paul’s decision to circumcise Timothy because of Jews in those regions. That is the nature of community.

Slices of anger. Splinters of greed. Slivers of spinelessness. Yet mission continues despite squabbles. Generosity grows despite greed. And the church expands in glorious diversity and splendid grace despite a questionable call here or there. That’s why the paragraphs that contain the sharp split between Paul and Barnabas, as well as Timothy’s bemusing circumcision, end on a high note: “So the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily” (Acts 16:5).

What Is It About “No” We Don’t Understand?

Paul’s (and Silas’) second missionary journey begins with the same discomfort we felt over Paul and Barnabas’ split or Paul’s inscrutable act of circumcision. Why? Because the holy spirit jumps into the fray, but in the oddest of ways. The holy spirit forbids them to speak the word in Asia, so they head through Phrygia and Galatia (Acts 16:6).

Most of us, I’d imagine, expect the holy spirit to inspire us to speak and to witness; that is, after all, the theme of Acts: witness to the world’s ends. Not here. Not in Asia. No sooner have we shaken our heads over this prohibition that the holy spirit is at it again: “they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so … they went down to Troas” (16:7–8).

A small point with huge significance: the holy spirit sometimes holds us back. Odd, isn’t it? We can accept that the spirit told Philip to hop into a chariot (Acts 8:29) or Peter to go with Cornelius (10:19), but how odd that the spirit keeps people from moving on. Few of us want to be told no, especially those of us who are tensed with an energy for mission. Yet the holy spirit does say no, and that “no” is just as much a part of divine providence as every “yes” we’ve ever received.

Only after Paul and Silas are prepared to take “no” for an answer and travel other routes than the ones they intended, are they in a place to receive further direction: “there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia,” Luke recalls, “being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them” (Acts 16:9–10). [Author’s Note 3]

A man of Macedonia calls for Paul’s help in the vision, but it is not a man whom Paul meets. Luke recalls that “on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us …” (16:13–14). It may have been a man who called, but it was a woman, among women, who listened.

The Strange Story of a Slave Girl

Lydia is a respectable businesswoman of Philippi, of whom Luke can happily say, “the Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14). The result? She and her household were baptized, and Paul stayed in Lydia’s home (16:11–15).

Days later, a jailer is so honorable as to plan suicide when an earthquake allows Paul and Silas, or so he thinks, to escape. After learning that the prisoners are all still there, the jailor asks the perfect question, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” The result? He and his household are baptized, and Paul eats in the jailer’s home (Acts 16:25–34).

Two mirror images of successful mission. Two principled people. Two receptive listeners. Two household baptisms. Two stories of unsolicited hospitality: lodging and a meal. Sandwiched between these stories is a tale, told in passing to explain how Paul and Silas ended up in prison, about a slave girl.

What a contrast to Lydia and the jailer! She is poor. She is indentured. Yet Paul lets the slave girl hang around for a few days until her constant yelling grates on his nerves. Why does he let her hang around so long? Because the girl gets the message right! “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation” (Acts 16:17). Paul has a personal publicity campaign in this slave girl.

So what’s wrong with this picture? The source of truth is not the holy spirit, surprisingly, but a “spirit of divination,” or a “snake spirit” (the Greek reads “pythonic spirit” in Acts 16:16). [Author’s Note 4] Ironically, the only female slave in the entire book of Acts who prophesies does so through a snake spirit rather than through the holy spirit. So much for Joel’s vision that “upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my spirit; and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:18).

We’ve seen untidy dimensions of Acts this week. An inspired compromise undercut by angry disagreement. Generosity interrupted by life-threatening greed. Freedom from circumcision undermined by a gratuitous snip-snip. And now the truth inspired by a snake spirit. What do we make of inspiration by a snake spirit rather than the holy spirit? According to a tidy interpretation of the Bible, not much, since only the holy spirit should get the message right. Mission on the edges, however, is messy, and inspiration erupts from unexpected places. And Paul and Silas are on a mission to the ends — the edges — of the earth.

Remember back to our second week together, how I asked you to read rollercoaster every time I wrote “Pentecost”? We are still on that rollercoaster, where we are jostled by human foibles and divine surprises, where oppressed slave girls prophesy, even if the best they can do for inspiration, in the constrictive and confusing world they inhabit, is a snake spirit. Buckle your seatbelts. Secure your valuables. You’re on a ride with wonders above and signs — disconcerting, destabilizing signs of God’s presence — below. [Author’s Note 5]

Hold on Tight and Flex

The high point (you’ll see, that’s an intentional pun) of Paul and Silas’ second missionary journey is Paul’s speech on Mars Hill. (Get it?) Tame enough on the surface, this speech, and the lead up to it, offers us enormous insight into mission — our mission.

First, Paul is waiting for Silas and Timothy. Elsewhere we see Paul running from one city to the next. We rarely see him wait. But he doesn’t just wait, of course. Every moment is an occasion for mission, every second an open door to engaging the cultures around him. Waiting for a Christian isn’t open space; waiting is opportunity.

Second, during this hiatus from constant motion, Paul’s spirit becomes irritated, angry. The words “he was deeply distressed” are way too tame. Paul’s spirit was aggravated by the glut of idols in Athens. Anger isn’t the sole response to cultural deformities, but sometimes it should be, because culture is occasionally horribly misinformed.

Third, Paul normally zips straight to the Jewish synagogue. Not here, where he spends time in three distinct locales:

  • the Jewish synagogue
  • the bustling agora, or marketplace, which contains the bema, or law court, and stores, including the slave market
  • Mars Hill, or the Areopagus, where the intellectual elite gather

Mission calls for flexibility, the capacity to respond with a level head to all levels of society. I wish we had a transcript of what Paul says in the agora. We don’t, but we do have snippets of Paul’s synagogue sermons, and we have an outline of the speech he is presumed to have spoken on Mars Hill.

Fourth, this speech is a model of theological flexibility and a brilliant example of the mission principle Paul explains to the Corinthians:

For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews … To those outside the law I became as one outside the law … so that I might win those outside the law (1 Corinthians 9:19–21).

Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill is addressed to those outside the law. In order to introduce them to the “unknown god” they claim to respect (Acts 17:22–23), Paul takes on a new idiom that sounds almost New Age! No appeal here to Abraham and Sarah, Moses, or David. [Author’s Note 6] Paul says instead that the creator God “gives to all mortals life and breath and all things” (Acts 17:25).

Where’s the theology of election here? Where’s Israel’s privileged place? This God, the God of the Areopagus, “is not far from each of us,” perhaps even within mortals’ ability to “grope” and “find” God (Acts 17:27–28). And the linchpin of this theology of the ever-available God? The Greek poet Epimenides, of course. (Heard of him?) “In him we live and move and have our being,” quotes Paul. Not enough of a proof text for the theology of a God present in every human being? Don’t fret. Paul supplies another quote, this time from the Greek poet Aratus. (Heard of him?) “For we too are his offspring.” [Author’s Note 7] Feel better? Two snippets of Greek poetry to support the view that everyone is a child of God. Everyone.

I doubt it. You probably feel uneasy about this claim to God’s universal presence. Fretful about the absence of biblical quotations. Worried about a theology grounded in obscure Greek poetry. You should feel uneasy, fretful, worried. Something strange is happening here. Just when you hit a smooth patch of rail without sharp disagreements, gratuitous circumcisions, a holy spirit that says “no,” and snake-spirited slave girls, you pitch forward, lunging and falling back, in a disorienting corkscrew of motion. Theological motion. Downright disorientation. Tossed upside-down by the very world you want to turn downside-up. This is mission. So hold on tight … and flex!

Flex … but not on the resurrection. Paul won’t budge on this, so some of his hearers scoff, while others want to hear more, among them Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman, Damaris — both, regrettably, unknown to us but possibly an impressive pair to Theophilus, the recipient of the book of Acts (1:1–2).

Safety and Security

Though overshadowed by Mars Hill, other dimensions of mission surface in Paul’s second missionary journey. First is the absolute necessity — and risk — of hospitality. Lydia and the jailer of Philippi extend hospitality. Jason and his friends in Thessalonica are dragged to Roman rulers and forced to pay bail. Under pursuit by Thessalonian opponents, believers in Beroea escort Paul to Athens (17:15) — a commitment of a few days by sea and up to two weeks by land. In Corinth, Paul stays and works for 18 months with Priscilla and Aquila (18:2, 11). Hospitality was indispensable to the security of Paul’s mission.

In Corinth, Paul even receives a vision assuring him that he will be safe. It is because of this vision that Paul stays in Corinth for 18 months. It would be remarkable to have such a vision assuring us of safety. No less remarkable is that God fulfills the promise of this vision through entirely unremarkable means — through Gallio, who was proconsul at Corinth in roughly 51 or 52 C.E. Gallio’s apparent apathy, his disregard for internal Jewish squabbles, preserves Paul, because Gallio “dismissed them from the tribunal” (Acts 18:16). Even when the Jews beat a synagogue official, he “paid no attention” (18:17). Gallio’s apathy is Paul’s salvation.

Visions are wonderful, and I’d love a regular diet of them. But God’s promise in Corinth is fulfilled in utterly unremarkable ways — as unremarkable as a forgettable Roman proconsul, Gallio, brother of the famed Roman statesman Seneca. Yet his political inertia leads to the unwitting fulfillment of Paul’s vision: “no one will lay a hand on you to harm you” (18:10).

Questions for Further Reflection

  1. Dr. Levison highlights two different scenarios in 15:36–41 and 16:1–5 that demonstrate the complexities of life in community. What are these scenarios, and what does each of them reveal? For good or for ill, how might you learn from the experiences of these sisters and brothers in faith?
  2. Twice in today’s reading we see the Holy Spirit changing the course of mission through saying “no.” Have you ever experienced a “no” or a closed-door in your life? What might this teach us about how God works amid the process of discernment?
  3. There are two significant conversion stories recorded in 16:11–40. What stands out to you from these accounts and why?
  4. In Paul’s famous speech on Mars Hill he makes multiple appeals to the popular culture of the group gathered there as a means of communicating the Gospel. What are the potential strengths of this approach? What are the potential weaknesses? How does Paul’s example challenge your own engagement with the culture around you?

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

Part of the problem may be that Barnabas is biased by family. We learn from Colossians 4:10 that Barnabas and John Mark were cousins. Luke, however, says nothing of this, so we probably should not import this knowledge into the story in Acts 15.


Author’s Note 2

This is one of the most difficult passages in Acts, and my charge of cowardice would be contested by many commentators, including my colleague Rob Wall, who sees circumcision, not as a contravention, but as a concession to James, who wanted to keep Judaism Jewish. And Timothy, despite having a Greek father, was Jewish because of his Jewish mother. Wall writes,

An exemplary Paul circumcises Timothy to restore his Jewish identity in order to maintain good working relationship between faithful Jews and Gentiles in the churches he founded. This religious motive agrees with James and will serve us again when he accuses Paul of preventing the circumcision of Jewish children (see 21:21). From Luke’s perspective, Paul is as committed as James is to keeping the Jewish heritage of Christian faith alive and well. To confirm this fact, he notes that “the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily” (Robert W. Wall, The Acts of the Apostles: The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Abingdon Press, 2002), p. 226).

Fitzmyer argues that Paul circumcised Timothy because this “was necessary for the story of Paul’s missionary endeavors that often begin with a visit to Jewish synagogues” (Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries) (Yale University Press, 1998), p. 575). He understands the words, “because of the Jews of those regions,” to indicate “the advantage that Paul would gain in having a circumcised Jewish Christian collaborator when he would be dealing with Jews of the area. Paul is obviously not contravening the decision of the ‘Council’ (15:10–12)” (Fitzmyer, p. 576).

According to Wall, the action is primarily theological; according to Fitzmyer, the act is principally practical. I am, obviously, not convinced by either of these preeminent commentators. Perhaps I am wrong, though I just cannot shake the sense that Paul has buckled under pressure.


Author’s Note 3

Like Luke’s portrayal of the spirit here, a vision is hardly novel in Acts. Stephen has a vision of Jesus (7:31). Paul has a vision of Jesus (9:10, 12). Peter has a vision of unclean foods that is reinforced by a divine voice (10:3, 17, 19; 11:5). Peter in prison meets with a real angel that he mistakenly thinks is a vision (12:9). Later, Paul will have a vision of the Lord that will encourage him to speak (18:9).

Paul’s vision at Troas, however, is different. This is not a vision of Jesus, of food that is explained by a divine voice, of an angel. This is a vision of a human being who is calling to him for help. Such a vision is more at home in the writings of Herodotus than in the Jewish tradition. For example, Herodotus narrates how Xerxes decides not to send an army against Hellas. Xerxes “made this second resolve and fell asleep; then (so the Persians say) in the night he saw this vision: It seemed to Xerxes that a tall and handsome man stood over him and said, ‘Are you then changing your mind, Persian, and will not lead the expedition against Hellas, although you have proclaimed the mustering of the army? It is not good for you to change your mind, and there will be no one here to pardon you for it; let your course be along the path you resolved upon yesterday’” (Histories 7.12).


Author’s Note 4

If you want to know more about this intriguing slave girl, check out my Filled with the Spirit (Eerdmans, 2009), pp. 317–25.


Author’s Note 5

Think here of Annie Dillard’s challenge:

Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return (Teaching a Stone to Talk (Harper & Row, 1982), p. 52).


Author’s Note 6

Though the claim that God doesn’t live in temples sounds a lot like Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple in 1 Kings 8:27.


Author’s Note 7

It shouldn’t, I suppose, since Paul preached something similar in Lystra (Acts 14:15–17).


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Discussion and Comments

3 Comments to “Strange Happenings: Acts 15:36–18:22”

  1. Leon Buzitis says:

    II’m thoroughly enjoying your series on Acts. I think Adam Clarke’s thoughts on Paul’s act of circumcising Timothy has merit: First Paul’s ministry to the Jews could have been negatively impacted by him being accused of associating with an uncircumcised person–Second Timothy would have no position of respect to minister to the Jews as an uncircumcised individual.
    Thank you for your work,

  2. AE says:

    there are several things that ought be eaddressed here, but probably he most important…

    “Two snippets of Greek poetry to support the view that everyone is a child of God. Everyone.”

    God makes it very clear who is a child of His.

    But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. John 1:12-13

  3. Deanna says:

    For further reading on Christian hospitality, I highly recommend the book Table Life by Joanne Thompson. Check it out at Here’s what Eugene Peterson has to say about the book: “Table Life is a delightful work of art. Joanne Thompson integrates the meals prepared and served in our own homes into the wonderful salvation hospitality that suffuses our Scriptures. She gives us an imagination to bring everyone gathered at our table to the Lord’s own table.”