Acts Wednesday: Chapter 17, Berea

Paul and Silas’ next stop was Berea, and though the account is short, it represented a needed time of encouragement for Paul.

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.

Acts 17:11-12 (NIV)

This is the only documented group of people in the Bible who went back to the scriptures to verify what Paul and his team were claiming.

Notice where they did not go.

  • They did not go to their rabbis and synagogue leaders. Though we are thankful to our spiritual leaders for their tireless (and often thankless) work in shepherding us, teaching us, guiding us, watching over us, and carrying the burden for our spiritual growth, they do not have the last say on what is true.

    Yes, they aim to be trustworthy. However, those among them who truly serve the risen Christ would not hesitate in agreeing that searching the scriptures is the best course.
  • They did not just talk about it with each other. Though it is a good idea to talk with those whom we value and respect as mature in the Lord, and their counsel, their opinions, hold weight, if they truly are wise in the things of God, they themselves will bring you right back to the scriptures to examine them together.
  • They did not open their commentaries and books by favorite authors. They surely recognized that good teaching is important, foundational even, to a strong life of faith. But in order to ascertain if a new teaching is from the Lord, if it has the gravity of God’s voice, the only way to really tell is to compare it to what we know the Lord has already spoken.

If Sola Scriptura means anything, it means final authority lies in the Word of God. That is to say, in the written words of God as they have been preserved and carried down to us today in the Bible, and in the living Word of God Who has given us His Spirit whereby He shares His mind with ours, and illuminates the written words of God for us to understand.

The Great Isaiah Scroll
Israel Museum / Public domain

Speaking of which, let us now go back to the Bible ourselves to see something very interesting developing in Luke’s account.

There is a particularly noteworthy phrase in this story that Luke included several times throughout this second missions trip: “and quite a few prominent women.” Listen to how often,

In Pisidian Antioch: But the Jewish leaders incited the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region. (Acts 13:50)

In Philippi: On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. [one of whom was the wealthy and influential Lydia] (Acts 16:13)

In Thessalonica: Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women. (Acts 17:4)

And here in Berea: As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.

Growing evidence, revealed in the book “Crispina and Her Sisters: Women and Authority in Early Christianity,” portrays women in the 1st through 3rd centuries’ church as persons of authority and influence. Recently unearthed, or reexamined funerary inscriptions, tomb art, and burial artifacts display a vivid depiction of women teaching, pastoring, and leading—in fact, the evidence seems to indicate there were more women leaders and teachers than men by perhaps as much as 70%.

Not coincidentally, when Emperor Constantine chose Christianity as the new imperial religion of Rome, and generated the first church councils to solidify and codify Christianity’s doctrines, the beginning of the end of women in church leadership for the next 1,300 years drew near. It was not until the Reformation that church doctrine and practice concerning fully half of the Lord’s “nation of priests” would be systematically reassessed.

Tragically, those who had opposed Paul in Thessalonica were bent on stopping Paul.

But when the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, some of them went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up.

Acts 17:13 (NIV)

So, Silas and Timothy stayed with the Bereans, to minister to them, teach them, and establish them in the gospel. In the meantime, Paul was escorted by the Berean believers to Athens where they promised Paul they would send Silas and Timothy on to him as soon as they had returned to Berea.

[Berea | Nathan Gibbs on Flickr,]

Acts Wednesday: Chapter 17, Thessalonica

Following the famous Egnatian Way, Paul and Silas went to Thessalonica, a predominantly Greek city and the capitol city of Macedonia, best known as an important commercial city with a port.

The Romans were superb road builders. Major routes were graded and paved, making travel and commerce easier than ever before. The road’s purpose was to enable Rome to move its armies in a more timely fashion. The bonus was that it also provided a way for everyone else to do so as well.

The Via Egnatia was built by a Roman senator named Gnaeus Egnatius, who served as praetor with the powers of proconsul in the newly conquered province of Macedonia in the late 140s BC.

The Egnatian Way was the main land route across northern Greece and extended from the Adriatic Sea on the western shore of Greece to the straits at Byzantium (later called Constantinople or Istanbul) to the east. The road was a major link between Italy and Asia.

Via Egnatia near Philippi
Carole Raddato, Flickr

Once in Macedonia, Paul had followed this road from Neapolis to Philippi and now to Thessalonica:

When Paul and his companions had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. 

As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. 

“This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,” he said. 

Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.

Acts 17:1-4 (NIV)

There are four words to take special note of:

Reason – Paul dialogued with them, question and answer style.

Explain – He opened the scriptures and showed how God’s word spoke of Jesus.

Prove – Paul gave irrefutable evidence by his own experience, and the eye-witness accounts of Jesus’ miracles, teaching, death and resurrection.

Proclaim – He gave the clear presentation of the gospel.

God added the power of His Holy Spirit to Paul’s words, opening the hearts of many to receive what Paul said.

But most of the Jews were vehemently opposed to Paul’s message, considering it sacrilege to pose Jesus as God’s Son, blasphemy to suggest God had raised Jesus to eternal life as God, and heresy to call Gentiles into the faith as full members of the family of God.

They became jealous of his success in the city, in particular because so many God-fearing Greeks were turning to the Lord in saving faith, thereby leaving the synagogue to form to the church. To the Jews, this was salt in the wound, after their careful proselytizing of these prominent members of the city. They raised up a riot looking for Paul and Silas, went to Jason’s house, hauled Jason out instead, and accused Paul of turning the world upside down and defying Caesar. Jason posted a peace bond, which earned his release and that night Paul and Silas slipped away.

Knowing their story adds depth to the reading of Paul’s letters to the believers in Thessalonica:

We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.

1 Thessalonians 1:2-6 (NIV)


We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing. Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.

2 Thessalonians 1:3-4

The believers in Thessalonica held a special place in Paul’s affections

  1. Paul’s love for them was so deep he felt orphaned when separated. (1 Thessalonians 2:17)
  2. He longed intensely to be with them, and made every effort to do so. (1 Thessalonians 2:17)
  3. He saw them as his glory and his joy. (1 Thessalonians 2:20)
  4. Paul sent his beloved Timothy to them, at great cost to himself, to strengthen and encourage them in their faith. (1 Thessalonians 3:1-2)
  5. Paul also felt great concern for them because of the extremity of their persecution, and Satan’s temptations. (1 Thessalonians 3:5)
  6. Paul was greatly encouraged by Timothy’s report of their faithfulness. (1 Thessalonians 3:6-7)

Determined to do all he could to care for this young church, Paul

  • Strengthened and encouraged them by sending them Timothy. (1 Thessalonians 3:1-2)
  • Wrote them at least two letters.
  • Lived with them for a time to teach them, empower them, and build them up in the faith.

In writing about the Thessalonian believers, perhaps Luke was reminded of Jesus’ words recorded in his gospel.

If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 

Jesus, as quoted in Luke 9:23

Jesus made several points about the cross for a believer:

The cross is necessary, not optional, for every believer.

Yet no one is compelled to take up the cross. A person must take up their cross willingly, because of a love for Jesus and a desire to share in His life. That is what Jesus’ followers were prepared to do as they received Him in faith.

The cross is personal. No one can pick it up and carry it for you.

The cross is meant to kill all selfish desires or ambition. You and I must die to self here on earth if we want to bear eternal fruit. The cross is choosing God’s will even if it will mean suffering. And the suffering that may come will be a direct result of following God’s will, just as Paul and his team were run out of town, just as the Thessalonian believers immediately began experiencing intense persecution from those who had previously claimed to love them.

Jesus also said The Father will honor and reward anyone who serves Him. That doesn’t necessarily mean earthly honor and rewards, even though sometimes it does. For the Thessalonian believers, a long and protracted time of suffering lay before them, but God would first honor those who had already died under this siege of opposition, and the rest would rise up to meet their Lord and Savior, “in the clouds,” in great victory and glory.

[Catacomb sanctuary in Thessaloniki| Image courtesy Pixabay]

Minor Prophets: Hosea Marries Gomer

Overview of Hosea
The Bible Project

Hosea son of Beeri was a teen at the end of Amos’ time in Israel. Amos had prophesied during Jeroboam II’s long and stable reign, during the wealthiest time in all of Israel’s history since the days of Solomon. There were ivory palaces, the land – and the people – were fat and flourishing, flowing bowls of wine, heavy clusters of olives and grapes, they never had it so good as this. Except that they were also corrupt.

Hosea picked up right where Amos left off, at the end of Jeroboam’s reign. Over the course of about 40 years Israel totally changed from a stable government to bloody intrigue. Four kings were assassinated in succession, each by their replacement. Their last king was captured in battle and thrown into the horror of an Assyrian prison. Israelite wealth was siphoned off into tribute to Assyria, and Israel itself “fluttered like a frightened dove,” first to Egypt, then to Assyria for help against their growing list of enemies.

There was anarchy and distress – think about all the purging and murdering that happened every time a new king came to the throne.

Theirs was a degenerate age, a calumnious culture filled with cursing, lying and bloodshed, stealing and adultery. They broke all bounds of law and decency, the environment was becoming polluted and corrupt. Prophets stumbled along with the people, priests fed on the sins of the people, relishing their wickedness.

You’ve heard of gang violence. In Hosea’s day the gangs were made up of -clergy- who butchered people on the road and committed crimes so shameful Hosea couldn’t bring himself to name them.

Houses got broken into and robbed on a routine basis, thieving and mugging in the streets happened every day, people could never trust the merchants and businesses because defrauding the consumer was common practice. Political leaders were filled with a hot lust for wickedness, deceitful practices and violence. Over all was a constant state of blanket terror that Assyria would one day overrun their country, brutalize them, destroy their fertile fields and lush cities and sell whoever was left into grinding slavery.

And then there was the idolatry.

It had now become so rampant, there were incense altars and prostitutes under every shady tree. Nearly every family had burned at least one child alive in the arms of Ba’al. They were so given over to fornication of every variety that whole families joined in, daughters, wives and mothers, little boys and girls all did their turns as temple prostitutes.

Husbands, sons, fathers and brothers came to fornicate with them. Somehow they thought this would fertilize the land and make it rich for planting and harvest. In this way God’s gifts of wealth and abundance were attributed to their own licentious behavior in acts of despicable worship to idols their own hands had fashioned from wood.

It is against the backdrop of this kind of society that the story of Hosea and Gomer took place.

Imagine Hosea, conservative, thoughtful, he loved to worship at the synagogue, to pray and talk about the Lord.

Maybe Gomer was popular, pretty, flirtatious, bright and sunshiny. She loved a party! She went to synagogue, too, because everybody did, everybody was religious. But she also went with her family to the high places, where all the festivals and New Moon rituals were celebrated. She hadn’t been a temple prostitute yet, but all her girlfriends were talking about it.

Hosea wrote his story retrospectively. As a young man, Hosea might have prayed and asked God for a wife, if he wasn’t already promised from boyhood to the daughter of a family friend. It was the usual way for fathers to arrange these things

Imagine Hosea’s surprise when he received God’s specific direction to marry Gomer, the beautiful yet morally censurable daughter of Diblaim.

When the Lord began to speak through Hosea, the Lord said to him,

Go, marry a promiscuous woman and have children with her, for like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord.”

So Hosea married Gomer daughter of Diblaim.

Hosea 1:2-3 (NIV)

Can you imagine Hosea’s conversation with his parents? They undoubtedly had always hoped their son would marry a virtuous and godly young woman who would love him faithfully, worship the Lord together with him, support him in his every endeavor, and raise a beautiful family with him.

Surely they were horrified, knowing exactly the kind of family Gomer had been raised in, and indeed her own openly licentious and idolatrous behavior spoke volumes on what life would be like with her.

Really, father, I distinctly heard the voice of the Lord speaking to me. Almighty God has commanded me to marry Gomer. I swear it!

But how can you say that, son, his mother might have cried. This is entirely against all we know of the Lord’s commands, and of His law. Would the Lord speak to you against His own written commands?

Certainly they would have pled with him, showed him scripture after scripture from the King’s Proverbs they felt would dissuade their noble, spiritually intense son, knowing his great love for the Lord, and his longing to obey God in all things.

Wisdom will save you also from the adulterous woman,
    from the wayward woman with her seductive words


For the lips of the adulterous woman drip honey,
    and her speech is smoother than oil;
but in the end she is bitter as gall,
    sharp as a double-edged sword.

They had many, many more.

Finally, perhaps, in a desperate move to save their son, Hosea’s father might have thundered, “The mouth of an adulterous woman is a deep pit; a man who is under the Lord’s wrath falls into it. Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, my son,” then reaching for his staff, “but the rod of discipline will drive it far away.”

Who knows. Maybe Hosea did have to endure the strikes and lashes of his father’s staff as he obdurately refused to change his mind, or his story.

God has commanded this of me, and I must do it.   

Hosea realized that what God was asking of him was to

  • Marry someone who would cause him terrible, life‑long pain, a woman God knew would break his heart.
  • Suffer his reputation to be smeared by his wife.
  • Raise the children this woman would give birth to, even when he couldn’t be sure they were his.
  • Allow their children to be shunned by their peers.
  • Leave their children in the care of a woman who abandoned them regularly in order to be with her lovers.
  • Finally force him to raise their children single‑handedly when she left him.

Hosea understood he was to portray the Lord God Almighty, Who had taken to Himself, out of pure love, Israel who had become unfaithful to Him. God called Hosea to love Gomer even though she would shame and disgrace him. To be faithful to her no matter what. Hosea’s marriage would become a picture of how God loved Israel.

They had three children:

Jezreel, whose name meant God would scatter His people in judgement (but one day God would plant His people again),

Lo Ruhamah, because God would not longer cover His justice with pity (but one day God would restore His loved ones),

Lo Ammi, because God would stop regarding Israel (but one day His people would be called sons of the Living God).

What a heavy burden this young man, perhaps only 18 or 19, had to face as he drank to the dregs the marriage cup with Gomer, under their wedding canopy that night. His life would soon become a crushing despair to him.

[the Prophet Hosea | Moretto [Public domain]

Acts Wednesday: Chapter 16, Demons and Jail

Paul, Silas, TImothy, and Luke entering Philippi
“To the Ends of the Earth” Project

Paul’s work in Philippi had only just begun. The next person God intended to receive the gospel was a jailor and his family, so this is how the Lord arranged for Paul and his team to get into the jail:

“To the Ends of the Earth” Project

An enslaved girl, suffering from demon‑possession, was following Paul around, sort of giving him and his companions free advertising. But Paul knew her prophecies came from a demon, she was possessed by an evil spirit – and evil is incompatible with God. Jesus never allowed demons to proclaim His name, He always silenced them, then cast them out.

The evil spirit was also hostile to the presence of Jesus, and could at any time start making false statements which no one would know better than to believe.

The young fortune-telling slave
“To the Ends of the Earth” Project

By the power and authority of the Lord Jesus, Paul liberated the enslaved girl of the evil spirit, but the businessmen who claimed ownership of her were furious that she had been rendered useless to them, so they hauled Paul and Silas into court. It is important to know it was strictly against the law to beat a Roman citizen without a trial, and Paul was a Roman citizen. In addition, Paul had not committed a crime.

“To the Ends of the Earth” Project

But the magistrate was facing a growing crowd of angry people. To him this looked like a small band of wandering Jews making trouble for some leading businessmen in the city. Without giving Paul and Silas a chance to defend themselves, the magistrate had them flogged and thrown in jail.

Now stop and think for a minute.

If -you- were in this situation, would you have guessed this was within God’s will?

  • Out of obedience to God’s leading they ended up in Philippi.
  • Continuing their call, they spread the gospel.
  • In keeping with Jesus’ own example and word, they rebuked an evil spirit.

Yet their “reward” was being falsely accused, the verdict was unjust, and the punishment was cruel.

All Paul and Silas had, in that moment, to make any sense of what was happening to them, was faith in God’s character. They had to believe that God was still in control, that everything was working out right, that God still loved them, they were within His will, that there was a purpose for all this.

So, Paul and Silas bided their time and didn’t complain. Instead, they prayed and sang hymns all night, beaten to a pulp, with their feet in stocks. Crazily, they had real joy, rejoicing in their sufferings, feeling sure it would bring glory to God. Paul and Silas’ extremity of circumstances was God’s opportunity to reveal His sacrificial love to the jailer. Our extremity is also God’s opportunity.

“To the Ends of the Earth” Project

The earthquake at midnight was a terrifying display of God’s awesome power and none of the prisoners dared to escape. Paul and Silas might have thought this was God opening a door for them to walk through. Their chains had fallen off. But in reality, it was the -jailer- God intended to set free, and both Paul and Silas must have known it.

“To the Ends of the Earth” Project

By God’s grace, Paul was ready to rescue the jailer with the gospel. God inspired the jailer to believe and the jailer and his household were saved to eternal life with God

It seems out of keeping with Paul’s humble nature for him to have insisted upon public fanfare and an official apology for his release. But, by doing so, the magistrate and his officials were forced to publicly admit their mistake in front of the jailer,

Paul leads the Jailor’s household to Christ in Philippi
“To the Ends of the Earth” Project
  • Protecting the jailer and his family from possible repercussions resulting from all those jail cell doors flying open.
  • And, preventing the harassment of the other converts in Philippi, at least for the time being.

God’s way of leading is step by step, often with unexpected twists and turns

God sometimes allows something to happen in order to put us in position to be ready for the next step. Paul’s willingness to trust and accept even the really hard steps God took him through led to the church at Philippi being established—the only church Paul would later consistently receive help from, throughout his career.

God also made sure the east, where the Lord had prevented Paul from reaching, received the gospel. Eventually, the Lord sent Peter to Bythinia with Mark, and Paul did later get to evangelize Ephesus, where he would meet Priscilla and Aquilla, only just arrived themselves from fleeing the persecution of Jews in Rome.

[Paul and the Jailor | Howson, J. S. (John Saul), 1816-1885 [No restrictions]

Acts Wednesday: Chapter 16, Lydia

Have you ever wondered what your destiny is?

Sometimes it seems like people really know – like the missionary who has “a heart” for a certain people group ever since she could remember, or the person born with a great talent, and a great passion to go with it. But what about the rest of us?  Why are we here? What did God have in mind when He created you and me?

What gives life meaning, anyway? I hear people talk about “paying it forward,” and I resonate with that. Everybody, across the board, longs to be known and loved, and longs to contribute something lasting and significant in life. So, is life really only all about self-fulfillment, and following your bliss? Are we content with the life rule of basically simply being a good person?

I mean, these are open ended questions people have been weighing in on for thousands of years, so, clearly, there’s no short and easy answer, no formula that wraps it all up.

But one thing we can know, is that whatever else our destinies may hold for us, being made in God’s image makes us personal, moral and spiritual beings, and God’s purpose for people is going to be all about love, and glory, and relationship. We have significance and worth already, because we were made in love, and made for love.

Honestly, destiny is gravy, when you think about it!

But, I think we get to have a destiny, too. God has something particular and unique that He’s given every person to contribute to the  earth, and to the world, and no matter what happens, you and I are not going to get robbed of that…even though we may not know what it is till we look back at the end of life and view our sojourn on earth from God’s vantage.

Still, you and I are probably not going to get a heavenly missive wafting down from heaven to us on the wings of a dove, with the whole plan outlined for us. Much more likely, God will lead you to your destiny one step at a time.

The process will shape you and make you ready for your destiny, as God molds you into the kind of person you need to be to fulfill what He has planned for you.

That’s what God was doing with Lydia in ancient Thyatira. In her day women did not usually wonder what their destiny would be. Depending on their station in life, they would become someone’s wife, and the mother of their husband’s children, or they might be sold into slavery. Very few women were able to pull off what Lydia did, joining a guild, becoming a master in a trade, and establishing her own household.

Lydia was the exception.

Thyatirian Purple

Lydia was most likely born into a Greek nobleman’s home, and raised in the wealth and bustle of Thyatira, a Turkish city world-renowned for its dyes and textiles trade. In fact, Thyatira was home to more artisans and guilds than any other city of its day, including the dyes guild, of which Lydia undoubtedly later became a member.

An outlier in her time, Lydia made a name for herself in the dye trade, establishing her own business and household, and enjoying a level of independence only a small minority of women were able to experience.

Murex Shells necessary to make the expensive purple dyes

It’s possible Lydia thought she was pursuing her destiny as a successful merchant and business woman when she branched out from her home in Thyatira and moved to the wealthy retirement community of Philippi. Here she would enjoy the fruits of her labors, with less competition from the bustling artisan and guild trade she had left behind.

Meanwhile, somewhere along the line, Lydia must have come in contact with some of the many Jews who lived in Thyatira, for a longing developed in Lydia to know the one true and living God. When she moved to Thyatira, she may have looked for a place to worship Him in Philippi, knowing that as few as ten Jewish men and women could start a synagogue.

It’s my guess that when Lydia found no synagogue in her new hometown she was the one who eventually urged and encouraged the Jewish women she met to form a prayer group by the river. God had worked into Lydia the kind of bold courage and ‘can-do’ spirit which had made her an outlier, and which the godly women of Philippi needed, to do the unusual by coming together to worship without any men at all.

What do you think God is working into your character?  What do you have that others may not even realize they need?

Lydia may have thought she had everything she had ever dreamed of.

  • She was wealthy, a successful businesswoman, and skilled at her trade.
  • She owned her own home and ran a large household of slaves and servants.
  • In her day, as a wealthy and influential person, she would have been sought after for her patronage.
  • She would have had a seat on the city council, her advice would have carried a certain amount of weight, and her ability to protect and sponsor those who sought her favor would have been significant.
Lydia with Paul
“To the Ends of the Earth” Propject

Lydia would have had a dense constellation around her of connections, tradespeople, businesses, wealthy private clients, noble families, vendors, the list goes on. Because of her wealth and status, this network of people would have asked her to confer with them on such matters as legal representation in court, loans of money, influencing business deals or marriages, and supporting a client’s candidacy for political office or a priesthood. In return, the clients were expected to offer their services to their patron as needed.

But the destiny God had in mind for Lydia included so much more than even these matters of consequence. God had eternity in mind for Lydia.

This is how God works in our lives, one step at a time. God intended for Lydia to receive the gospel. Little did she know that God had been working on her behalf by sending the apostle Paul a dream that would draw him to her very city.

Meanwhile, Paul had been praying for guidance from God. He knew the Holy Spirit was preventing him from heading east, though he longed to go in that direction. But, Paul also knew with confident faith that

Lydia receives the Lord Jesus
“To the Ends of the Earth” Project

“The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” 

1 Corinthians 2:15-16 (NIV)

The very night Paul asked for God’s guidance he had a vivid dream holding the impact of a vision. The next morning he had no doubts he and his team were to head west.

God’s goal was to bring the gospel to Lydia, to save this woman whom He had made in His image, because of His tender, personal love for her. The destiny God had planned for Lydia was to receive the gospel, become the first believer in Europe, open her home to these missionaries, and use her wealth and influence to establish Europe’s first church in her spacious home.

As an outlier, Lydia was the perfect person to begin this church. She knew what it took to think outside the box, to push boundaries, and to accept unusual people.

Mature faith accepts God’s crossing up of normal conventions.

Lydia’s story gives me courage to lean into my own destiny, whatever that is. Sometimes it feels safer to just do the things we know, don’t make waves, stay within the cultural norms, let someone else do the pioneering.

But Lydia rose to challenges.

Paul must have just loved her strength, her courage, her perseverance, and yes, her patronage.

Paul and Lydia
“To the Ends of the Earth” Project

One thing I am getting to learn about Paul, he loved powerful women, and he included them whenever he could in God’s great work.

[Paul and Lydia | Wikimedia Commons]

The 12 Minor Prophets

This week, I’m starting a new series from the Hebrew Bible (what many refer to as the “Old Testament”). I’ve long been fascinated with the poetry, imagery, and intensity of the prophets, and especially intrigued with the minor prophets–maybe because the only place I ever heard teaching on all twelve books was in the Bible study I used to be a part of.

In doing some background studying, I came across a really wonderful resource on YouTube called “The Bible Project.” I’ll feature on of their overviews each time I introduce a new prophet. This week, The Bible Project gives an overview of how to read and understand the prophets themselves

How to Read the Bible: The Prophets
The Bible Project

There are actually 15 prophets who get their own books in the Bible (all in the Hebrew Bible), as this chart shows, and their books are ordered according to size:

Chart of Israel’s Kings and Prophets

Many of prophets’ careers actually overlapped. For each of the twelve minor prophets, here is a basic résumé:

Hosea was contemporaries with Amos and prophesied in Israel during the reigns of Zechariah and Shallum, between 782-752 BC

Joel was the sole prophet in Judah, during his career throughout the reign of Joash, from 835-796 BC

Amos was older when Hosea started his career. Amos had already been prophesying in Israel during the long reign Jeroboam II, 782-753 BC

Obadiah prophesied alone in Judah, during Jehoram’s reign, 848-841 BC

Jonah came shortly after Amos and Hosea, prophesying in Israel during the reigns of Menahem and Pekahiah, 752-740 BC

Micah followed Jonah, prophesying both together with Isaiah in Judah, during Jotham’s reign, 748-732 BC, and alone to Israel during Pekah’s reign, 752-722 BC. You’ll notice the overlap with Pekahaiah’s reign. For a time, both kings rivalled for Israel’s throne, causing a great deal of strife.

Nahum prophesied after Israel had been hauled off into Assyrian captivity, 722 BC. His actual timing is fuzzy, so…somewhere in that first, say 50 years after the exile

Habakkuk had a lot of contemporaries: Zephaniah, the famous Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. It’s possible Huldah, the woman prophet, who had prophesied during King Josiah’s time, was still living (she is, for unclear reasons, not reflected on the chart above). All of these prophets preached in Judah during Jehoiakim’s and Jehoiachin’s reigns, spanning 608-597 BC

There is a short span of time, Zedekiah’s reign from 597-586, where there must have been overlap between the prophets just above, and the prophets just below.

Haggai also had several contemporaries: Zechariah, Malachi, and Jeremiah. Their most active time of prophesying was after Judah was taken into Babylonian captivity, 586 BC.

Hoseah is first up, next week, following the order given in the Bible,

[Great Deesis with Prophets | Walters Art Museum [Public domain]

These panels reproduce the upper two tiers of the screen (known as the iconostasis) that separates the nave from the altar in Orthodox churches. Such sets, of which this is one of the earliest known, were used by priests for makeshift altars and by lay people for personal prayer.

In the upper row, the Virgin and Child are surrounded by Old Testament prophets who hold scrolls with passages foretelling Christ’s birth:

Habakkuk (?), Micah, Jeremiah, Moses, Daniel, David, Solomon, Jonah, Jacob, Isaiah (?), Gedeon, and Zechariah.

Below, the adult Christ is seated on the throne of judgment, flanked by holy persons who entreat him to forgive our sins. On his right are the Virgin, St. Peter, Metropolitan Peter of Moscow, St. Sergius of Radonezh (a famous Russian hermit), and St. George. On his left stand John the Baptist, St. Paul, Metropolitan Alexis of Moscow, St. Cyril of Belozersk (another renowned Russian monk), and St. Demetrius.

Acts Wednesday: Chapter 16, The Women of Philippi

Paul’s pattern was to bring the gospel “to the Jew first, and then the Gentile.” But, when Paul and his companions arrived In Philippi, they discovered the Jewish community was so small there was no synagogue.

Ever resourceful, Paul knew the Jewish custom was to locate synagogues outside the walls of Gentile cities, and somewhere near water, for ritual purification. So, Paul led his team through the city gate to the bank of the Gangites River, about a mile and a half outside of town.

Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke following the Gangites River outside of Philippi
“To the Ends of the Earth” Project

It’s around 50 AD, and Paul is 47. I’m guessing Timothy is probably 20, at the most, but I’d put him more at 18. Hard to say how old Silas and Luke were, but considering their interest in this sort of “on spec” missionary journey, the risks and dangers involved, the open-ended feel of it, knowing they’d most likely be on the road for at least a couple of years, I’d say they were, max, in their forties, too. I want to say Silas was about 35, and Luke maybe 43.

They’re all walking together, in my mind’s eye, Paul up ahead with Timothy right next to him, engaged in deep and weighty conversation. Silas and Luke are a little farther back, taking in the countryside, enjoying the warm sunshine, the rustling trees, the singing birds, praying silently, looking forward to the Sabbath worship.

Women, including Lydia, gathered to pray
“To the Ends of the Earth” Project

As they follow the river bank, they see a sizable group of people gathered, and they feel a frisson of elation, knowing soon they will be with God fearers.

How exciting to finally meet the Man of Macedonia!

What fun it will be to tell him how Paul had seen him in a vision, and had not stopped traveling till he could come to him, and give him the help he had so passionately implored for that eerie night.

Imagine their growing bewilderment as they began to discern these were women gathered together. All women.

Now, there’s some disagreement about this set up, here. Post first century, the Mishnah began to include instructions about how a synagogue could only be formed if there were ten eligible Jewish men present. But in Paul’s day, it’s not so clear.

1st century husband and wife
Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany [CC BY-SA (

I did a little teensy bit of research on this, and found a great blog by “Rabbi Joshua” on Patheos that claimed women were able to participate in just about all aspects of religious life, and were considered equals with men on that score. He said archaeological evidence supports:

  • Women served as leaders in the synagogues
  • Participated in ritual services
  • Studied in the “beit midrash” (study hall)
  • Learned and taught Jewish law
  • Were counted in a minyan [a quorum of ten men (or in some synagogues, men and women) over the age of 13 required for traditional Jewish public worship.]

Even though first century synagogues had balconies, and upper rooms, there is no—to date—archaeological evidence that supports the contention women were physically separated from men during the prayer times.

Women said “amen” with the men in response to the priestly blessing.

Early inscriptions describe women having served as heads of synagogues, leaders, and elders.

Yes, you did read that right.

In first century Judaism, apparently, according to ancient inscriptions, women served as elders. Women served as leaders. Women even served as head of the synagogue.

It’s a lot to digest, isn’t it.

I’ve looked around, and this is basically what the newest scholarship is uncovering.

The synagogue in Philippi was all-female, most likely the wives and daughters of the retired Roman military who had settled there. My guess, Jewish girls who fell in love with those dashing men in uniform, Centurions and the like, and, over the cries and hand-wringing of their families, married and moved away. Or, maybe, impoverished Jewish families who had to indenture their daughters to wealthy Roman families only to see them manumitted as wives to Roman sons. There may very well have been at least a few Roman and Greek women there who had converted to Judaism. There was, of course, also, Lydia. More on her next time.

So Paul and his companions were bewildered, because the person who begged Paul for help in the vision had definitely been a man. But the people the Lord led them to, were definitely all women.

“To the Ends of the Earth” Project

Why did God do it that way? I mean, at first glance, it seems sort of capricious and random. Why not just send a vision of a Macedonian woman? Why not that? No clue! But, if I were a betting person, I’d bet God knew enough of Paul’s personality and general makeup, that sending a vision of a man would be galvanizing in exactly the right way, whereas sending a vision of a woman might have actually been more puzzling and unnerving.

But ya gotta hand it to Paul and his crew. They did not skip a bit. Puzzled looks changed to pleased smiles instantly, and they sat right down to worship with these God-fearing women. The women, apparently, didn’t skip a beat, either. They welcome these four men into their gathering, and even arranged themselves to hear what Paul clearly was burning to say.

Paul preached the gospel to the women at Philippi
“To the Ends of the Earth” Project

In telling this story, I pretty much had my breath taken away by what I discovered about the dignity, honor, and respect first century women enjoyed in their religious community. I really had had no idea. I’d been taught a very different version of first century Judaism, but here’s the stick point: Pharisees had a particular and vocal view, yet in actuality they were in the minority. Mostly, in real life, people fell in between the Sadducees on one side, and the Pharisees on the other.

And, there were way more than just these two denominations.

  • There were also Kairite Jews, who only subscribed to the Tanakh alone (in other words, the Bible alone—Torah, first five books of Moses, also called the Pentateuch; Nevi’im, the Prophets; Ketuvim, the Writings) and had nothing to do with the other writings, such as the oral traditions and laws of the rabbis (Mishnah), the Midrash and the Talmud.
  • There were the very ascetic Essenes, who were very much enthralled with endtimes theology.
  • There were the Zionists, a fiercely patriotic sect.
  • and the Zealots, who were fierce to the point of terrorism.

All religious Jews, but with very different ways of seeing things.

Most generally, ordinary people accepted women as teachers, shepherds, and leaders.

Knowing this kind of transforms how I read the New Testament, now, and especially how I see Paul writing about, and working with, women.

Babtistry on the River Gangites outside of Philippi | Ian W. Scott [CC BY-SA (

Acts Wednesday: Chapter 16, Paul and the Macedonian Man

Last week left us with the lingering truth, God commands us to protect the unity He has given us. But that doesn’t stop sincere Christians from having strong convictions that seem at odds.

In that eventuality, when there doesn’t seem a way forward together, maybe what God is doing is broadening the ministry so more people will be trained, more ground will be covered, and spiritual maturity can be displayed through humility and fruit of the Spirit.

Barnabas took Mark and set sail for Cyprus, Barnabas’ home, to bring the Jerusalem Council’s letter to those churches. Eventually, they ended up in Jerusalem, where they spent considerable time with Peter and the assembly that met in John Mark’s mother’s home.

Luke, because he was telling Theophilus about the spread of Christianity throughout the world, continued to chronicle Paul’s missionary journey.

Paul’s Second Missionary Journey, accompanied by Silas, Timothy and Luke
Roberto Reggi (sulla base di Yohanan Aharoni, Michael Abi-Yonah, Atlante della Bibbia, 1987, mappa 246.) [Public domain]

Paul, this time, had chosen Silas as his travel companion. Silas was one of the two people the Jerusalem church had selected to return with Paul and Barnabas to the Antioch church. Silas was a leader among the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem, a prophet and also an encouraging speaker. They must have made a good team together, because they remained as coworkers for most of Paul’s career.

This time, Paul and Silas went by land, through the Tarsus mountains through Syria and Cilicia.They revisited Derbe, added Timothy to their team when they got to Lystra, went through Iconium.

Lystra is where Paul had been stoned and left for dead. When he returned, the church there spoke highly of a young man named Timothy, who was half Jewish, half Greek. In Jewish law, the religion of the mother was taken, but in Greek law the child took the religion of the father. The Greeks thought circumcision was a mutilation of the body, which is probably why Timothy had not yet been circumcised. His father, the head of his household, would not have permitted it.

Paul wanted Timothy to continue on with him and Silas, but with the stipulation that he be circumcised.

Some people questioned Paul’s decision on this, but it was not the same situation as with Titus. Before the council of Jerusalem’s decision, the issue of circumcision was a hot potato, heavy with implication. Once the council made its decision, circumcision could now be relegated to a matter of choice.

  • With Titus, the issue had been clearly about salvation.
  • With Timothy, the issue was not about salvation at all, but about effective ministry, to not be an offense to the Jews, as Timothy was also Jewish.

As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey. So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.

Acts 16:4-5

So far so good, it was proving to be a wildly successful missions trip!

Paul wanted to break new ground with the gospel, so he tried to head for Ephesus, a strategic city for sure. But, somehow God prevented them, so they instead continued north through the districts of Phrygia and Galatia.

Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke
“To the Ends of the Earth” Project

When they got to Mysia they tried to head east again, this time for Bythinia, but once more the Spirit of Christ prevented them in some way, so they continued west-ish to the coastal city of Troas, where they met up with Luke, and he joined their company, too. Now Paul had a strong team, himself, the prophet, teacher and leader Silas, the young and well-spoken-of Timothy, and now the physician and journalist Luke. I imagine they now prayed and talked over dinner together, trying to figure out the next leg of the journey.

Paul had, by this time, visited all the believers who had been converted during his first trip. He had been wanting to forge new territory for a while, now, and the Lord had kept preventing him. Paul had to have been at least a little frustrated, puzzled, and somewhat at loose ends. Maybe even a bit unnerved that he was trying to serve the Lord with all he had, and the Lord kept opposing him. So, they bunked down for the night, in the bustling sea town of Troas, hoping to get some well needed rest.

I picture Paul tossing and turning on his cot, in some upstairs inn, the rhythmic sound of the ocean as a backdrop, sea air, moist and cool, coming in through the window. Finally, REM sleep settled in, and Paul entered the otherworld of dreams.

There before him was a man, from Macedonia. Maybe he was wearing distinctive Macedonian clothes, or his cut of hair, or accent, gave him away. And he was begging Paul about something. In his dream, Paul may have been lying in his bed, eyes wide, as this man stood over him, wringing his hands, with worried eyebrows and a taut mouth. “Please, you have to come. You have to help,” the man pleaded, in Paul’s vision. “Macedonia. You’ve got to come to Macedonia and help us.”

Paul knows to go to Philippi
“To the Ends of the Earth” Project

Suddenly the sun is shining through the window, the call of seagulls and fishmongers’ cries waft in, and I see Paul waking, with a start, adrenalin coursing through his body. Luke wrote that day they got ready “at once,” Paul had gotten his marching orders, and he was going to wait for no man. God was sending them to Macedonia, and they were going to get there right now, today, no time to waste.

They traveled, it seems, pretty much nonstop. That very day they set out to sea and sailed straight to Samothrace. They must have hit the ground running, because the next day they got to Neapolis. From there, they went to Philippi.

MrPanyGoff [CC BY-SA (

Now, why Philippi?

I dunno. Here was a man with a mission, he hardly looked left or right. I want to believe they evangelized all along the way. I want to believe they noticed the people around them, and were ready for every opportunity to spread the good news where they were, loving people, and caring for people. But the pace of Luke’s narrative does not slow down until they got to Philippi.

And then, finally, Paul’s team got to catch a breath.

In fact, Luke said, they actually stayed there for several days. Luke described Philippi as a Roman colony, and the leading city of that district in Macedonia. Maybe that’s why they stopped there? It was a wealthy town, located in the foothills of Mt. Orbelos in Greece, a “Rome away from Rome.” Settled by mostly retired military and their families, its citizens were rewarded with not having to pay taxes so long as they remained loyal to Rome, obeyed all the laws of Rome, and kept a basically Roman presence in this conquered area of the Empire.

Just as Timothy’s Jewish mother had married a Greek Gentile, so also here in Philippi, there were evidently a number of Jewish women who had married Roman soldiers, as well as Greek women who had also married Roman men. Paul must have scrutinized every guy he met, looking for man of his dreams. I wonder if the men in Philippi found Paul somewhat intense, and maybe even a little weird.

Come the Sabbath day, Paul and his crew began to look around for the synagogue. Now, that doesn’t mean they were necessarily looking for a building, per se. They were looking for a gathering of faithful Jews who would be worshiping God and reading from the scriptures. And, in order to do that, they needed to find a source of “living,” or running water.

Mikveh, with a menorah in the foreground

In Judaism, ritual washing is a central part of worship. One form is “netilat yadayim,” pouring water over the hands to cleanse them for eating, or for other holy use. Most of the time, this means pouring water from a pitcher over the hands as the person turns them, and catching the water in a bowl.

The other form is called “tevilah,” a full body immersion in a “mikveh,” which has “living,” or flowing, water going through it, necessary for cleansing and purifying. Among the several reasons for mikvoth, was conversion to Judaism. Then one would fully immerse themselves in living water, which would wash away their old life, leaving them fresh and pure to begin their new life as a Jew.

Sounds familiar, right?

Mikvoth were so important, they were constructed before even the synagogue building was erected. In fact, all throughout Israel there are archaeological excavations of mikvoth found in homes, and by synagogues. To this day, homeowners who might want to dig out a new foundation for their house, or expand their basement, may find the ancient ruins of a mikveh.

Unfortunately, Jews were often barred from using rivers in their cities for bathing. Romans preferred bath houses. Perhaps this was so in Philippi. So, it makes perfect sense that when Paul and his companions did not find any likely candidates, and saw the Gangites River was nearby, they would follow it outside the city gates, expecting to find a place where the faithful would be gathered in prayer.

Hoo boy! Were they ever in for a surprise.

I guess this part of the story shows me how easy it is, even with a vision from God, to not exactly know what’s going to come next. I may think I have every detail of the plan nailed down; but, with the Lord, that is rarely going to be the case. Where would faith fit in, in a scheme like that? Typically, God is going to give us enough to go on, and at each step—if we’re willing to take those steps of faith—God will give us more.

[Ruins of Troas | Horacio36 [CC BY-SA (

Acts Wednesday: Chapter 15, Solutions

James called the assembly back together to hear the rest of Paul and Barnabas’ report, and to sum up what had been decided in private. The Holy Spirit led the entire council.

The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.

Acts 15:12

James voiced the council’s decision based not just on the circumstantial evidence that God was accepting the Gentiles who turned to Christ in faith, but on scripture and the leading of the Holy Spirit as the final authority. “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us,” James would write in his letter to all the churches.

James quoted a prophecy from Amos declaring the Gentiles would be saved through the gospel brought to them by the Jews.

He appealed to the Hebrew Testament of the Law, though none of the burden of the law was to be put on the Gentiles, James pulled from three key areas where Moses had taught how to respond in love to a right relationship with the Lord. All were to abstain from

  1. the things polluted by idols. They had to make a clean break from idolatry.
  2. sexual immorality, but abide by God’s laws of purity.
  3. what has been strangled and from blood. The Gentiles were to do their part in meeting their Jewish brothers to keep from offending them.

James told them “You would do well” so they could celebrate the love feasts together. Eventually this last request faded away, as all Christians came to be of one mind concerning food.

If your freedom offends another Christian’s convictions, or leads them into sin, then to abstain abides by Christ’s law of love.

Not out of some legalistic attempt to gain favor with people or with God.

Anytime you or I try to relate to God through performance, we have forgotten the Gospel. But you and I are to do everything out of love, out of compassion, out of a humble desire to sacrifice our own comforts in order to build each other up. If you and I believe in Jesus Christ and love the brethren we will try not to do things that offend.

When handled in the power of the Holy Spirit, a crisis becomes an opportunity for God to glorify Himself, and for you and me to live out the gospel in surprising ways.

Paul and Barnabas’ courage to obey God and defend the truth brought great freedom and rejoicing.

  • The Gentile Christians rejoiced and were encouraged by Jerusalem’s letter. They were eager to follow through with these guidelines.
  • Judas and Silas were prophets, and God now gave them opportunity to strengthen and encourage the Gentile Christians in the faith, with good teaching.
  • Shalom was once again the keynote of the Christian community, and these Jerusalem brothers were sent off in peace by their Antioch brothers.

I think Paul and Barnabas were also greatly encouraged by the support the Jerusalem church was showing to all the Gentile believers, and in particular, the Antioch church.

After a short rest, Paul approached Barnabas to get back on the road, because that’s where Jesus had called them to serve. I’m sure what happened next caught them both off guard.

Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.”

Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work.

They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company.

Acts 15:36-39

This was not about doctrine. These two men stood together in doctrine. 

This dispute was about the practical details of doing the Lord’s work, and that is an important distinction in this story. 

One of the keys to Paul was his devotion to the work: Paul felt Mark was irresponsible and lacked loyal persistence, which disqualified him from being a member of this team.  The work was going to be just as hard, maybe harder, lives were at stake, when the chips were down Paul needed to know who he could count on.

To Paul, the Lord’s work was not something you put your hand to only when you enjoy it, and you can abandon it when it gets too hard or you’re not enjoying it any more. 

Barnabas, on the other hand, was devoted to the people involved in the work. He loved to encourage the development of people’s gifts, and he didn’t mind taking risks and paying the cost of supporting someone who nobody else wanted to support. After all, Barnabas was the first to reach out to Paul soon after his conversion, and introduce him to Jesus’ disciples. Later, it was Barnabas, again, who reached out to Paul to join with him in teaching and shepherding the Antioch church.

Barnabas felt Mark had a lot of potential. He wanted Mark to have a second chance.

There was no principle of faith involved, just different temperaments having differing opinions on a particular matter. But their final decision to part ways seems to have been blessed by God:

  1. Two evangelism teams were formed, instead of one.
  2. Mark eventually became the apostle Peter’s beloved spiritual son, helping him to write his gospel and accompanying him on his missionary journeys.
  3. Paul ended up developing another young missionary, Timothy, who became a beloved spiritual son to him.
  4. Paul and Barnabas did not split the church over this, they kept their dispute between themselves. Notice the church commended Paul, and there was no distress in the church.

Sincere Christians can disagree without losing love and respect for each other

In this case, their sharp dispute revealed a deep philosophical divide over how to move forward in their mission. Should the work get the priority, or should developing the people in the work be more important?

I imagine many doctrinal disputes fall into a similar category—which aspects of the doctrine are the most important? Which apply in this particular situation? In fact, which principle or doctrine is applicable to a particular situation?

People continue to wrestle with that questions, and it seems there is more than one right answer!

[Hands | Pixabay]

Acts 15: "Iron Sharpens Iron"

Paul’s leading edge was love, unity, harmony in community, building up and willingly adjusting to those who were less spiritually mature, or weaker in their consciences.

So, how does all this square with the way Paul publicly rebuked Peter?

Well, some thoughts come to mind.

First of all, Peter was no stranger to public rebuke. The Lord Himself had taken Peter to task on a number of occasions, one time in a very public and painful way. Peter would have had experience in understanding how to navigate through this kind of encounter.

Secondly, Jesus had anticipated how hard it would be for His beloved ones. Early in His ministry, the Lord provided some simple, practical steps for resolving conflict within the body, beginning with a one-on-one conversation, moving to a small meeting with one or two others who could act as mediators, and only when that doesn’t work, to bring the conflict before the whole community.

Finally, the night before His crucifixion, Jesus interceded for His own, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth,He had prayed, and made supplication for the church’s unity.

There is no doubt both Paul and Peter knew these teachings and prayers of Jesus. They were both apostles, they had both received years of personal tutoring from the Lord Himself. They knew.

So, though the record does not reflect it, my guess is Paul must have talked with Peter, with Barnabas, and with the Jewish believers who had come down from the Jerusalem church, both one-on-one and in small groups. My guess is, the Jewish believers were completely unmoved by Paul’s arguments.

I have one piece of intriguing evidence to support this thought. Paul wrote in one of his letters to the believers in Corinth,

This will be my third visit to you. “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”

I already gave you a warning when I was with you the second time. I now repeat it while absent: On my return I will not spare those who sinned earlier or any of the others,

since you are demanding proof that Christ is speaking through me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him in our dealing with you.

2 Corinthians 13:1-4 (NIV)

It seems this is how Paul was in his relationships. He followed Jesus’ basic outline for correction and resolution of conflict within the Body of Christ.

Now something that often gets missed is that there was more than one group of Jewish people who were opposing Paul.

One group rejected the gospel. They were staunchly Hebrew covenant Jews, and considered Paul a renegade and worse, a heretic and blasphemer. These were the ones seeking to destroy Paul.

Another group seems to have believed in Jesus, but they did not preach the same gospel as Paul. Perhaps at least some of these were among the former priests, and Pharisees who believed the old covenant of the Hebrew Bible was still active—I say this because Luke described them as “some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees.” This group was seeking to correct Paul.

On this side of the issue were the Pharisees who had become believers.

To them the scriptures clearly outlined nonnegotiable terms for inclusion with the people of God.

  1. They had two thousand years’ worth of scripture to back them up. They knew God had given the covenant of circumcision to Abraham, and had made it crystal clear anyone without circumcision would be removed from the people of God.
  2. This covenant was so serious, and so important to God, Moses nearly lost his life when he attempted to answer God’s call to lead without taking care of this issue.
  3. Again, no one was permitted to enter the Promised Land until every male had undergone the rite of circumcision.

In the middle were Peter and Barnabas.

According to Paul, this believing group of Pharisees from the Jerusalem church had come down to Antioch after Peter had arrived, and had been so convincing in their arguments that both Peter and Barnabas were finally swayed, even though:

  1. Barnabas had worked side-by-side with Paul and experienced the miracle of salvation among the Gentiles with Paul. Barnabas was both well-known and well-loved by the church at Antioch, where he had been teaching with Paul for years.
  2. Peter had been given a vision by God Himself to show that Gentiles would now be included in the people of God. However, this vision was so disturbing to Peter he had at first resisted God.
  3. Peter’s vision led to the centurion Cornelius’ conversion, and that of his whole household. Shockingly, to Peter and the six Jewish believers who had accompanied him, God poured out His Spirit on these uncircumcised Gentiles. So, Peter baptized them all, seeing God had already brought them in to His household.

And on the other side was Paul, left standing alone.

There is no question the Gentile Christians, who had up to this point been received as full members into the family of God, were now getting the message something was wrong with them. Frighteningly, this contingent of believers from Jerusalem, men learned in the scriptures and familiar with the things of God, were teaching a very convincing message that grace and faith were far from enough, for not only the famous Peter, but even their beloved teacher and shepherd Barnabas was drawing back from them.

The only one left who might defend them was Paul.

It was necessary Paul publicly defend them, so the Gentile Christians would be reassured of their place with God. Paul did this not simply for the sake of truth, but for the sake of keeping the church from being irreparably broken apart.

Paul was left with an untenable situation, where God’s beloved ones were being told they were unacceptable when God Himself had already imparted His Spirit to them. In this case, the believers who had come down from Jerusalem were 100% convinced they were right, they had solid scripture references, they had thousands of years of tradition, they had the backing of all the scholars, and they had a sympathetic ear in Jerusalem…Paul had none of those things. Yet, on this issue they were wrong. We know that, now.

What Paul did have was the Spirit of Christ, the evidence of God’s powerful, divine work among the Gentiles, and prophecies from scripture that he was now interpreting in a fresh, new way based upon Jesus’ powerful salvation of grace through faith as understood in the gospel.

Make every effort to protect and nurture the unity God has given us by His Spirit, including, as a last measure, public rebuke.

It is all part of living in a community to be open about what we think and feel, to be passionate about the things that are important to us, and to establish boundaries. It is also healthy to listen to each other, to be willing to learn from each other, and to humbly understand none of us is 100% right about everything. We may feel we are right, but we may be quite wrong.

[Sword pommel | Courtesy of Pexels]

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