It’s difficult reading Acts without a map. By now, more than a few times, I’ve remembered times of family road trips using the good ‘ol Rand McNally Road Atlas. Even before we moved to Texas, I used to love flipping to the back and studying it because it was so big! It occupied more than two big pages. And several Texas cities, like Houston and Dallas, were given close up views to increase the usage rate of the Atlas for folks who lived in the big cities. For reasons I don’t fully know, I’ve always enjoyed geography and navigation.
Being from Indiana, it’s in my blood to be a basketball fan. I prefer to watch college basketball over the NBA because it’s rules are more traditional and allow teams to play defense. I’m generally against changing the rules in sports to attract a broader, more casual fan base. But I understand decisions are made to maintain and increase revenue. The rise of prolific three point shooting, a shorter shot clock, faster play, and other rules limiting defense, have all made the NBA difficult for me to watch. It isn’t just basketball that’s gone through rule changes. Football, baseball, and golf are examples of other sports who are dealing with similar issues with the desire to maintain and increase their popularity.
Opposition, misunderstanding, and rejection to the good news of Christ has been occurring since Jesus himself walked the earth. On their first missionary trip, Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel in Iconium; some believed, and others stirred up opposition to them. In Lystra, they were received enthusiastically, so much so, that the people thought they were pagan gods - Zeus and Hermes.
We are beginning to see a pattern that Paul has - he goes first to the Jewish people, then the Gentiles (non-Jewish). He knew this message of Jesus was for everyone, but he also knew it was Israel’s story. Jesus was Jewish, and part of the every long line of people who had a covenant with God. It was important to teach about Jesus in the context of Judaism.
The Jewish people in the synagogue received Paul and Barnabas well. They spent time talking with them after the service and even invited them back for the next Sabbath. But the word got out in the community. Everyone, including Gentiles, wanted to hear the “word of the Lord.” Suddenly, the Jews were jealous. They thought this good news was exclusively for them. Weren’t they the people who had spent centuries trying to follow God? Who were these Gentiles, these pagans? They hadn’t even been looking for a Messiah, and now they were getting the benefit of salvation simply through faith in Jesus!
The church was worshipping, fasting, and praying when they felt the Holy Spirit give them direction. How often do we want direction from God, yet fail to spend time in communion with God? We want answers, guidance and direction without actually seeking God. We often expect God to be on the ready with whatever we need, but we don’t spend time listening. If you want to know God’s will, seek God, not just in the moment, but in concentrated, focused time set aside for that purpose.
There is a lot of action and a lot of characters in these 25 verses. There were the Romans, ruling over the region in this text, and reliant on local Monarchs to rule on their behalf. There was a king, Herod, who though Jewish, was loyal to the Roman empire. There were the Jewish people, living in a land ruled by the King, but ultimately under Roman control. And there was the church, new followers of Jesus, including both Jewish and non-Jewish, also including some of the apostles.
The action in these verses took place in Syrian Antioch (there is another Antioch in modern-day Turkey). It was a crossroads for trade, culture and travel. People of all walks of life would be present in this thriving, crowded city. This group of Jesus-followers, the ones who had seen one of their own killed, been persecuted and forced to leave their hometowns in fear of death, these people believed enough in the good news of Jesus to keep telling people, but only their own people.
In today’s reading, we work back through the story of the events leading up to Peter’s surprising conclusion that Jesus is Lord of all including the Gentiles. The news has spread that he has been hanging out with the wrong crowd and getting into trouble with that Gentile gang, so he finds himself back in the principal’s office in Jerusalem trying to explain himself.
When reading through yesterday’s passage and the one for today, it can be tempting to have a knee jerk reaction to the Jewish exclusion of Gentiles and think, how narrow-minded of them! But this really only reflected the default understanding of the ancient world that different nations and ethnic groups had their own unique gods. Ra was the god of Egypt, Marduk of Babylon, Asshur of Assyria and so on, whereas Yahweh was the God of Israel. Of course these gods showed favoritism or partiality for their people, because they were Lords over their own people. That was the logical order of the universe.
In today’s passage, we draw near to one of the most important boundaries that marked off Jewish life--the boundary between Jews as the unique, covenantal family of God over against the other nations and ethnicities of the world, the Gentiles.
If yesterday showed us that Christ’s call to these early Christians to be Spirit-empowered witnesses propelled them to cross boundaries for the gospel to reach the ends of the earth, then in today’s reading we find that this movement and empowerment of the Spirit would also require them to cross one of the clearest lines, the most dearly demarcated boundaries of all: sometimes we are called to reach out to our enemies, the difficult people, the mean ones, the people we don’t like and who may, in turn, dislike us.
In today’s reading we get several snapshots of the work that the Spirit is doing in this early Christian community, particularly focused through the lens of two important leaders whose exploits will frame much of the story in the coming chapters of Acts: Saul and Peter.
The book of Acts opens with Jesus’ promise to his disciples that the Holy Spirit would empower them to be witnesses in “Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In today’s reading, Philip, the bold boundary crossing deacon who had already evangelized Samaria (Acts 8:4-8), says yes to another assignment (Acts 8:27) and finds himself riding in the chariot of an Ethiopian eunuch who had just left from a visit in Jerusalem to worship at the temple.
Remember, at the beginning of Acts, Jesus said to the apostles, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." In today’s reading we learn how Phillip, one of the original seven “food distribution team” members (Acts 6:5), was given that really tough mission to go to Samaria.