As we move into a new year, we continue our Bible readings in the book of the Acts of the Apostles.
Thursday 1st January
Here we have the first great council of church leaders. Before discussing the issue and its conclusion, we should notice something about the process involved. The way in which the leaders of the church in Antioch acted to resolve the problem highlights for us an important principle: the church should be governed corporately and not congregationally. There is no justification in Scripture for congregationalism! That is to say, authority in the church is not vested in the local congregation but in the whole church and matters of importance, major decisions, can only be resolved corporately. The Christians in Antioch could not resolve this problem alone, they had to appeal to a gathered body of church leaders, made up of Apostles and Elders. When the delegation from Antioch arrives in Jerusalem, we see the method of problem-solving within the Early Church. This is a model of church governance and discipline.
Friday 2nd January
Peter argued strongly on the side of Paul and Barnabas that the Gentile Christians must not be bound by Jewish regulations. Shortly before this Peter had been rebuked publicly by Paul (2:11-16). Perhaps it was this which helped Peter to see the error of his ways. After Peter had spoken, Barnabas and Paul then told the Apostles and Elders what God had done among the Gentiles through their ministry. This testimony was so powerful that we are told the Assembly was ‘silent.’ After the apostles and elders had given full consideration to the matter, James, the acknowledged leader of the Council, announces the conclusion. James gives a summary of the evidence, he makes reference to certain Scriptures and then he gives the decision of the Council. The Gentiles did not have to be circumcised or become Jews.
Saturday 3rd January
We are now in a position to understand the way in which the decision was made at this Council. First, Peter stated the doctrine: there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, all are saved by grace not by keeping the law. Second, Paul and Barnabas described what God had done among the Gentiles. Third, James stated the relevant Scripture passages. Do you see the point? The decision was made on the combined basis of doctrine, experience and Scripture. The decision itself was very significant. It was a recognition that Christ had died, not just for Jews but also for Gentiles. It was also an affirmation that what God was doing by his Holy Spirit in the lives of Gentiles must take priority over Jewish ideas of what a Christian must be and do. Jews and Gentiles are both saved by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no difference. There is only one way of salvation. We are saved by grace.
Sunday 4th January
The agreement reached in Jerusalem was now to be communicated to the Gentile Christians in Antioch. A letter was written and trusted Christian leaders were asked to deliver it and to assure the Gentile churches of the support and encouragement of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. Notice how the decision of a church council, reached on the basis of God’s Word, was then carried through by godly men who encouraged the church. Notice, in turn, how they were received in Antioch and later sent off with a blessing. In the whole process, God the Holy Spirit was clearly leading and the leaders of the church were listening. When supposed leaders stop listening to God speaking by his Spirit through his Word, the decisions made damage the church and do not build her up, as we know in the current situation in Scotland.
Monday 5th January
When Paul and Barnabas decided to re-visit the Churches, a dispute arose between them over John Mark. In Acts 13:5 we learn that Mark had been with Paul and Barnabas on a previous journey but we learn from verse 13 that he left them during this missionary journey and returned to Jerusalem. There was such a ‘sharp disagreement’ between Paul and Barnabas that they went their separate ways. The only good thing to come out of this dispute was that there were now two mission teams on the go, instead of one! It is true that John Mark had previously proved unreliable but Barnabas saw in him some promising qualities. Unlike Paul, Barnabas wanted to give him another opportunity to serve. This worked well. In fact, later in his ministry, Paul wrote to Timothy and said: ‘Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.’ (2 Timothy 4:11) Barnabas looked for the good in others and encouraged people to try again.
Tuesday 6th January
When Jesus gave his ‘Great Commission’ to the disciples, he did not send them out in mission and then abandon them. No, he assured them that he will be with them to the very end of the age. He sent the Holy Spirit, to empower believers for service and above all to direct the mission. As we can see from today’s passage, God the Holy Spirit guided them every step of the way. We should not be surprised to learn that God has his own mission plan. Do we seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our evangelism or do we simply come up with ‘good ideas’? We are part of God’s great Mission Plan. What he calls us to do is a small segment of what he is doing overall. Often we do not see the big picture but we can be assured that there is a big picture and that God is sovereignly working out his Mission in and to the world. We need to listen and be guided by the Holy Spirit.
Wednesday 7th January
The story of Lydia is important for an understanding of how God works to bring sinners to salvation. The sequence of events is precisely as we would expect it on the basis of the biblical doctrine of effectual calling. First, Paul and the others began to speak to the women who were there. Paul, we are told, had presented a message and, it is clear from verse14, this message demanded a response. Now here is the interesting point. Does it say that Lydia was persuaded by what she heard or that she was convinced by what Paul said? No! It says that, ‘The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message’. Now clearly, from a human point of view she was persuaded but it was not the conviction itself which made her a Christian. It was the work of the Holy Spirit of God in opening her heart and enabling her to respond.
Thursday 8th January
Paul and Silas were staying in the home of Lydia who had just become a Christian. One day they encountered a slave girl who was possessed by an evil spirit which enabled her to predict the future. This ability made a great deal of money for those who owned the girl and they were so furious when the evil spirit was cast out that they had Paul and Silas thrown into jail. At midnight, God caused an earthquake which broke their chains and opened all the doors. This miracle resulted in the jailer becoming a Christian. Paul and Silas were told they could go free but they stood on their dignity and, declaring themselves to be Roman citizens, demanded that the magistrates come to the prison. They did and Paul and Silas were escorted from the prison and asked to leave the city. This is another wonderful example of the amazing providence of God in acting on behalf of his servants.
Friday 9th January
In this chapter, we see Paul preaching the Gospel in three places: Thessalonica, Berea and Athens. In each place he used different methods and received a different reception. Let’s begin by looking at Paul’s method in evangelism. As was his custom whenever he went to a new place, he went to the Jewish place of worship on the Jewish Sabbath. What did he do in the synagogue? He ‘reasoned with them from the Scriptures’. Notice he ‘reasoned’ with them. That is to say, preaching is not some irrational appeal to the emotions. Notice also, he reasoned with them ‘from the Scriptures’. Preachers may have strong views on many subjects, but it would be wrong to air these from the pulpit unless they are derived from the Word of God. The true nature of Christian preaching is to ‘reason from the Scriptures’.
Saturday 10th January
When Paul preached to the Thessalonians there were some Jews who ‘were persuaded’ and a large number of Gentiles believed but there was opposition which was concerted and seriously hostile. We’re told that the Jews were jealous, stirred up trouble and even spread lies and false accusations. Instead of being concerned with justice and righteousness they hired a mob to start a riot. They called Paul and his companions ‘These men who have turned the world upside down’. This was both an insult and a compliment: the gospel is revolutionary and does turn individual lives, and the lives of communities and nations, upside down when it is taken seriously. The fact that Paul and his companions experienced such hostility should not surprise us. Truly the devil hates to see the gospel at work!
Sunday 11th January
Having been forced to leave Thessalonica, Paul went to Berea, where the reception was quite different. We are told that ‘the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians’ and that they ‘received the message with eagerness’. They knew their need, they understood their condition and they sought a remedy. But how exactly did they seek this remedy? First, they ‘examined the Scriptures every day’. They knew where to look for the answers. They did it often and carefully. Second, the Bereans ‘searched for the truth’. They really wanted to know the truth. Many who claim to be seeking the truth don’t really want the truth – they want a religion and a worldview which will satisfy their human inclinations and desires. In other words, they want a god or a religion which will fit in with what they believe already, which will bring them peace and joy, and will not require them to make any fundamental changes to their lifestyle. The Bereans genuinely wanted to know the truth.
Monday 12th January
Athens was a great city in the ancient world. It was a city of high culture, of great architectural beauty, the home of fine sculptors, writers and orators. In particular it was a city famous for its philosophers and thinkers. Perhaps the best description of the city is given in verse 21: ‘All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.’ It was a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who confronted Paul in Athens. They began to argue with him (verse 18) and then took him to a meeting of the Areopagus (verse 19). The Areopagus was an ancient institution, a kind of court which had considerable authority in religious matters. It was possible for visiting teachers to be brought before the Areopagus to give an account of their teaching, and that is what Paul was required to do.
Tuesday 13th January
Paul had been greatly disturbed when he had first arrived in Athens to see the many idols representing various gods. This provided him with the introduction to his sermon, as we see in verses 22-23. The Athenians had many gods and each god had an idol or a number of idols but, just to make sure that they had covered every eventuality, they even had an idol to the ‘Unknown god’! And so Paul begins to speak of the living God who is not an idol made of wood or stone and does not live in a temple or any other kind of building but rather is the one who made everything that exists. He is the Creator. This God, says Paul, gives life to all human beings. Like Paul, every time we share the Gospel we must point people to the living God because inside every human being there is a need which only God can fulfil.
Wednesday 14th January
As our chapter opens, Paul has left Athens and moved to Corinth. There he met up with Aquila a tentmaker like himself, and he stayed in Aquila’s home working as a tentmaker and preaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath. Wherever Paul went, he worked with his hands to support himself. We see this in various places: Acts 20:34; 1 Thessalonians 2:9; and 2 Thessalonians 3:7-8. When Silas and Timothy came with a gift of money he devoted all his time to preaching. As in other places, Paul peached first to the Jews and only when they rejected the Gospel, did he go to the Gentiles. In this case, although the leader of the synagogue was converted, there was serious opposition, so he shook off the dust from his feet and turned to the Gentiles.
Thursday 15th January
Here we see that God spoke to Paul in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no-one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.’ God encouraged his servant and assured him that his word would not fall on deaf ears because God had chosen some of the Corinthians for eternal life. Nevertheless, the next 18 months in Corinth was a troublesome time for Paul. Corinth was a difficult place to minister. The name ‘Corinth’ was a byword was sin and depravity. Even when the church was firmly established there were many problems and many of the Christians fell into sin. It was a difficult place to be a Christian. Paul understood that Christian life, witness and ministry involve struggle, hardship and disappointment.
Friday 16th January
In the second half of the chapter, we are given a brief description of Paul’s travels. Then the focus turns to Apollos. We don’t know a great deal about this man but we’re told that he was a Jew from Alexandria, who had been converted. In verse 25 of our chapter we are told that he had been instructed in the Faith and that he spoke with great fervour but he only knew part of the story. He came to the attention of Aquila and Priscilla who then ‘invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.’ Later he went to Corinth and became a mighty evangelist. As we read in verse 28, ‘he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.’
Saturday 17th January
In the first seven verses of our passage we are told the story of some disciples who had not received the Holy Spirit when they believed. They had only received the baptism of John the Baptist. They had not been baptised as followers of Jesus and they had not received the Holy Spirit. In this sense they were like Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, one of the twelve disciples. If you remember from the beginning of John’s gospel, Andrew was actually a disciple of John the Baptist and it was when John pointed to Jesus and called him the Lamb of God, that Andrew turned to follow Jesus. These disciples whom Paul met had not been present on the Day of Pentecost and had not received the Holy Spirit. This was a unique historical circumstance. From the time of the resurrection onwards, every Christian believer receives the Holy Spirit at the point of regeneration. Some have tried to argue from this that we can be disciples of Jesus but not have received the Holy Spirit but this is not true. This was a unique historical event.
Sunday 18th January
In these verses, we read that, ‘Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God.’ When that had to stop because of Jewish opposition, he rented a lecture hall and continued to teach there. The kingdom of God was his great theme. It was also the central theme of the preaching of Jesus, who began his public ministry by declaring that the kingdom of God was at hand (Mark 1:15). Jesus’ preaching and teaching focussed on the kingdom. The Scriptures also tell us that between the Resurrection and the Ascension, the kingdom of God was his theme (Acts 1:3). This should also be our major theme.
Monday 19th January
This passage is about the supernatural power of God and the spiritual powers of darkness. In verses 11-12 we are told that miracles took place under Paul’s ministry, as under the ministry of Jesus. The sick were healed and evil spirits were cast out. Then in verses 13-16 we are told of the seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, who were casting out evil spirits in the name of Jesus, although they were not Christians. The fate which overtook them is a powerful testimony to the existence of evil powers. Christianity is a supernatural religion and none of this should surprise us. It is concerned with miracles and with the Holy Spirit and with activities of God. If our Christian faith can be explained without any reference to the supernatural, then it is not real Christianity.
Tuesday 20th January
Our passage describes a riot which took place in the city of Ephesus. Demetrius, a silversmith, made silver shrines of the goddess Artemis for sale to the pilgrims who flocked to Ephesus to see the Temple of Artemis. He was most concerned about the spread of Christianity because it was damaging his business. Paul had spoken about the foolishness of believing in man-made gods and many people had been persuaded by his arguments. Demetrius called together the other craftsmen who benefitted from the cult of Artemis and convinced them that this new Christian religion was a dangerous error which ought to be dealt with. These men proceeded to start a riot, and soon the whole city was in an uproar. It took the city clerk to sort this out. This is just one more example of all that Paul suffered in order to preach the Gospel and share Christ.
Wednesday 21st January
Yesterday we read the story of the riot which took place in the city of Ephesus. Paul left Ephesus immediately after the riot and travelled through Macedonia to Greece. A number of other disciples, including Luke who wrote the Acts of the Apostles, joined him at Troas. On the Lord’s Day they met together to ‘break bread’ that is, to share together in the Lord’s Supper. Paul was due to leave the next day and, because he had so much to teach the Christians in Troas, he kept on talking until midnight! This had unhappy results, as a young man named Eutychus fell asleep and, ‘When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third storey and was picked up dead.’ Eutychus, however, did not remain dead. Paul went to him and he was raised from the dead. Undeterred, Paul continued to speak until daylight! Once again God had worked a miracle.
Thursday 22nd January
This passage of Scripture tells a very sad story. This is Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders. Each of Paul’s missionary journeys had begun and ended in Ephesus. This was really his home church. Now he is coming to the end of his public ministry and is heading for Jerusalem, unsure what awaits him there but conscious that it will probably be his last journey. The passage begins by telling us of the journey taken by Paul and his disciples (including Luke the author of this record) to Miletus. Paul went part of the way on foot and then joined his companions in the boat. Eventually they reached Miletus and Paul sent for the Ephesian elders. To understand this passage I think we have to picture a minister taking his leave of a people he had loved and served for a long time. You can sense the mixture of sadness and concern mingled in Paul’s words. On the one hand he loved them and would miss them deeply but on the other hand he wants to warn them of dangers which lie ahead. He also wants to remind them of what he had said and done among them.
Friday 23rd January
While they were in Tyre, Paul was tested. The Christians in Tyre were very concerned for Paul’s safety and we’re told in verse 4 that, ‘Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.’ This is quite a difficult verse to understand. It could mean that the Holy Spirit, through the Christians in Tyre, told Paul not to go to Jerusalem. If that is the meaning, then he was disobedient because he went anyway! A more likely explanation is that some of the Christians in Tyre had the gift of prophecy and, by the Holy Spirit, they foretold that when Paul went to Jerusalem he would be arrested. Having foretold this, they urged him not to go. In other words, the information that he was to be arrested in Jerusalem came from the Holy Spirit but it was the people themselves who drew the conclusion that he ought not to go. Paul was well aware of what could happen to him in Jerusalem but he felt the compulsion of the Holy Spirit upon him, telling him to go.
Saturday 24th January
Paul and his companions sailed to Caesarea, where they stayed with Philip the Evangelist. While in Philip’s house, Paul receives a visitor. This is Agabus whom we have met before, in chapter 11 of the Acts of the Apostles. Agabus, like the Christians in Tyre, prophesies that Paul faces trouble in Jerusalem (verses 10-11). Like some of the Old Testament prophets, Agabus’ prophecy is expressed in symbol as well as words, using Paul’s belt. Notice, however, that although Agabus is prophesying that Paul will be arrested when he reaches Jerusalem, he does not try to persuade Paul not to go although his friends do (verse 12). Paul, however, was not to be deflected from his purpose as we read in verses 13-14: ‘Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.”’ Our natural human instincts must give way to God.
Sunday 25th January
The problem between Jewish and Gentile Christians comes to the surface again when Paul reaches Jerusalem. In verse 21, the leaders of the church in Jerusalem explain that the Jewish converts to Christ, ‘have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs.’ There was no problem with the Gentiles, the council of Jerusalem had settled what was required of Gentiles. Paul is being accused of trying to persuade Christian Jews to ignore God’s law. To pacify them, Paul is asked to go through some Jewish purification rituals, with others. He did so and this reminds us of his great evangelistic mission statement in 1 Corinthians 9:20-22.
Monday 26th January
Paul is recognised by some Jews when he was in the temple courts. They said wrongly that he had brought Gentiles into the temple area but this was simply an excuse. They hated him and wanted him dead, so they dragged him outside the temple and began to beat him. Paul had been ‘circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.’ Now he was regarded as a traitor because he had become a Christian. If it had not been for the intervention of the Commander of the soldiers, he would have been killed.
Tuesday 27th January
Acts 21:37 – 22:21
Paul persuades the Commander to allow him to address the crowd. What does Paul do? Well, he gives his testimony! He describes what he had been (a devout Jew who persecuted Christians), and what he had become (a Christian). He also tells how this change happened (his encounter with Jesus on the Road to Damascus). Paul will give this testimony again in chapter 26 when he is on trial before Agrippa. Paul’s story was certainly powerful and would no doubt have held the attention of the crowd. Many would have been interested to know how such a high ranking Jew who zealously persecuted the church had changed so dramatically. It is often a simple testimony which first interests people in the Gospel.
Wednesday 28th January
The crowd we’re told listened to all that Paul had to say until he came to the point where Paul describes how God had commissioned him to go as an Apostle to the Gentiles. This was more than these Jews could bear, as we see in verses 22-24. They shouted, ‘Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!’ These Jews could not under any circumstances accept that God had any good purpose for Gentiles, nor could they accept that God could command anyone to evangelise the Gentiles. As far as they were concerned, God was only interested in the Jews. They obviously didn’t even know the Old Testament properly because we’re told in several places, particularly in the prophets, that the Jews were to be a light to the nations, the means by which other nations would be blessed and saved. The Jews who hated the Gentiles and looked down on them had forgotten their calling to be a light to the nations.
Thursday 29th January
This was all too much for the commander of the guard. He did not understand all of this religious argument but he could see that the crowd wanted this man dead. As we read, he decided to have Paul flogged so that he would explain what this was all about. As they were preparing to do this, however, Paul revealed the fact that he was a Roman citizen and that it was illegal for him to be flogged in this way without a proper trial. At this the commander was frightened. We read in verse 29 that he ‘was alarmed when he realised that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains.’ To be a Roman citizen involved a number of privileges, including the right to own property, the right to vote and the right to stand for office. It was highly regarded and people would do a great deal to obtain citizenship, like this commander of the guard who had obviously paid a great deal of money for his. Since Paul was a Roman citizen by birth, he belonged to a higher class than others, and must be respected. No wonder the soldier was ‘alarmed’ when he realised his mistake.
Friday 30th January
Paul is then brought before the Sanhedrin in order that the Roman commander might decide if there was a case to be answered. In the first five verses of chapter 23, we find Paul being treated very badly and in a way contrary to the law of God. In verses 6-11, Paul divided the Sanhedrin and caused them to fight among themselves, by raising the subject of the Resurrection. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead but the Pharisees did. Paul makes use of this division by setting them against each other and it worked! The Pharisees were stirred by Paul. He reminded them of the essence of their belief and so they supported him. He fanned into flame what had long lain dormant. Thus the story ends with Paul caught in the middle of this dispute.
Saturday 31st January
The story now takes a sinister turn, as we read in Acts 23:12-13: ‘The next morning the Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. More than forty men were involved in this plot.’ Happily, Paul’s nephew found out about this and told Paul, who sent him to the Commander, Claudius Lysias. The Commander was probably still very nervous about how he had treated a Roman citizen and so he takes action. As we read in verses 23-24: ‘Then he called two of his centurions and ordered them, “Get ready a detachment of two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen to go to Caesarea at nine tonight. Provide mounts for Paul so that he may be taken safely to Governor Felix.”’ This does seem like overkill! Four hundred and seventy Roman soldiers to protect Paul against forty Jews. God was clearly looking after Paul.