Today’s reading: Acts 28
Today we read about Paul’s arrival in Rome after his harrowing journey. This journey has taken several months, it has included a shipwreck and many stopovers. On one stopover in Malta, Paul has cured many people who were sick. Upon arrival in Rome, Paul is allowed to live by himself with only one soldier guarding him. No doubt at this point Paul could have escaped many times. His preaching and healing of the sick would be well known to the guards that transported him. We don’t know if he soldiers converted but upon his arrival in Rome, they have likely reported that Paul is not a threat. Thus as a Roman citizen, he is given the softest treatment.
One thing that is interesting to note is that both in Puteoli and Rome we find Paul visited by “brothers”, people that have already been converted to Christianity. It is most likely that they were converted by Peter, who reports in his letters that he is in “Babylon” which is a Jewish code word for Rome.
We also find that the Jews of Palestine have not sent on warnings or charges against Paul. This will also allow Paul to operate for a long while free from scrutiny. Most likely, after Paul left for Rome, the Jerusalem authorities were just happy to see him go, knowing it would be many years before he could make a complete round trip.
What is also interesting is that the local Jewish leaders have also heard of this growing sect of Judaism and are interested in learning about it. They asked Paul to explain it to them. It is interesting to see how this happens. The text says that Paul spends the entire day “from morning until evening” explaining it. This is not some simple message being boiled down to the lowest common denominator, Paul is going into detail. This suggests that Paul is thoroughly expiating the Old Testament explaining how all details corroborate each other and are fulfilled in the life of Jesus.
Notice, it then says that “some were convinced by what he said, but others disbelieved.” When you think about it this is a surprising thing. Paul is the greatest evangelist, selected by the risen Jesus himself to spread the Gospel to the entire world. In his younger days, he was a Pharisee, trained under the greatest rabbi of the era and undoubtedly was a master of the Old Testament scriptures. But despite having the Gospel explained to them by the greatest of the great evangelists some still do not believe.
Paul explains, while they are walking out, that for some their hearts have “grown dull”.
So, as they disagreed among themselves, they departed after Paul had made one statement: “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet:
“‘Go to this people, and say,
“You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed;
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them. ‘
Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.”
What does it mean when someone’s heart had “grown dull”? We have heard similar phrases in the Bible of people who have been bind to the Lord working in their lives. We have heard it said that their “hearts grew hard” or that the Jews are a “stiff-necked people”. Young’s literal translation of this passage is that, “made gross was the heart of this people”.
There is no easy answer as to what prevented some from converting. These were at least superficially pious men. Leaders of the Jewish community in Rome, they no doubt prayed and followed tradition. Yet even with Paul detailing all of the scripture for them they refused to see what was right in front of their eyes. How did they explain away passage after passage that came to fulfillment in the life of Jesus? How did they ignore verse after verse that was corroborated by another book or another prophecy? We are not given an exact answer in the text. Instead, it stands as a warning to us, don’t be like them, don’t deny what can be shown from the Scripture. Don’t let your heart “grow dull”. When the Catholic Church expiates the scriptures every verse is read in harmony with all the rest of scripture, with history, and with tradition. This harmony cannot come from men but must come from the Holy Spirit. It’s easy to “grow dull”, to accept less challenging understandings, to not delve deep but in doing so you lose too much, for the deeper you go the more wonderful the mystery.
Tomorrow: 1 Thes 1
Today’s reading: Acts 27:27-44
In today’s reading Paul is shipwrecked for the fourth time in his missionary journeys. The night before some of the sailors were going to escape the ship on a lifeboat but Paul seems to have convinced them not to leave. It turns out to be a good thing they didn’t because the next day they see a cove. They attempt to sail to it. However, the ship runs aground on a shoal and breaks up when they are trying to reach it.
While there is little doubt that this chapter records historic event, “The Ship” has long been a metaphor for the Church. We see here some interesting illusions within that metaphor. It is Paul, the Church’s minister aboard the ship, who gives the sailors the wise advice. Had they left the ship on at the first sign of danger they very well may have been lost at sea. Staying with the ship longer got them to within sight of shore and even when the ship breaks apart on the shoal it is the pieces of the ship that the survivors cling to that get them to shore. All the people that stayed with the ship and listened to Paul are saved.
It is imperative that we stay with the ship until the end. But notice, there was much drama on the ship. Some of the sailors wanted to leave, the guards wanted to kill the prisoners, the ship went through a storm of many days and for a while, the conditions were so bad they were not even able to take food. We are not promised that the journey will be easy only that we will be saved and arrive safely.
Tomorrow: Acts 28
Today’s reading: Acts 27:1-26
Today we read the account of Paul’s journey by ship to Rome. The first part of the voyage is relatively uneventful. However, the last leg of the journey was treacherous as it was already late in the year and nearing winter when sailing was difficult. Paul advises against attempting to make the journey but the captain and Paul’s centurion guard decide to attempt it. They are blown off course and meet with a storm that lasts several days.
There are two takeaways from this chapter. First, notice that at this point Luke, the author of the book of Acts, starts referring to what happens with “we”. It is generally accepted that he accompanied Paul on this part of the journey. In reading the passages it reads as if it is an account by someone who was there and kept notes during the voyage. Second, notice that at the end of the trip Paul tells his shipmates that an angel has told him that the ship will be lost but that they will survive because Paul is destined to go to Rome and testify to Caesar. This shows that everything that happens in our lives, including great difficulties, are ultimately meant to serve God’s purpose.
Tomorrow: Acts 27:27-44
Today ‘s reading: Acts 26
Paul, having been accused of Blasphemy and Sedition, makes his defense. It is important to understand when this is happening. This scene is after Paul has completed his missionary journeys. This is after Paul has appealed to Caesar. He is going to Rome where he will ultimately be martyred. Paul is now by far an expert in delivering the gospel to others. This is in effect a summation.
Let’s look at what Paul says. He recounts again that he began by persecuting the Christians and recounts his conversion. However, this time he gives us more detail about what Jesus said to him:
And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’ And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and bear witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from the people and from the Gentiles–to whom I send you to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
In the previous two times, we have read about Paul’s conversion I made the point that Jesus says, “Why are you persecuting ME”. When Jesus appeared to Paul, He made no distinction between Himself and his followers. In this version of the conversion story, Paul tells us the purpose for which Jesus is appearing to him. Jesus is appointing Paul an Apostle to bear witness, “to the THINGS in which you have seen Me and to THOSE in which I will appear to you.” Notice, Jesus again does not separate himself from his followers OR their actions.
This is the intimate connection Christ has with his followers who make up the Church. This is why Paul wrote in his letters, that the eye cannot say to the hand “I have no need of you”. This is why Paul wrote in his letters that, “it is not I who live but Christ that lives in me.” This is why you cannot have two versions of any doctrine. If the hand separates from the body does it still live? If two people preach different doctrines can Christ live in both and teach two different things?
This union between Christ and the Believer is so close, so intimate, that it mirrors the union of the persons of the Holy Trinity. After conversion, the separation between the believer and the Lord is lost but we do not feel this intimate connection in every minute of every day. However, we know that the Lord’s commitment to us is total, complete and unqualified. Therefore, we also know that it is us who resists or fails to trust the connection. By experience, we know that occasionally we stop resisting and allow the Lord in. For example, anyone who has ever got really bad news knows that in those moments of despair we throw off pretense and rely totally on the Lord (and thus we see why the Lord allows suffering). From this, we can tell that salvation is a process by which over time we learn to rely on the Lord more and more.
Next, we see Christ telling Paul that his mission will be to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles. Jesus says that this is being done, “that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are SANCTIFIED by faith in me.” Notice, the word used in sanctified, not saved. Personally, I don’t want to overemphasize the difference in the words, they are certainly similar in meaning. However, I do think “sanctified” can be read as the beginning or first step in a process. That what was not holy is being made holy or sanctified. Whereas “saved” implies a finality, that there is nothing left to be done.
Finally, let’s look at Paul says about what he has done since his conversion:
Wherefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those at Damascus, then at Jerusalem and throughout all the country of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God and perform deeds worthy of their repentance.
So here, in making his defense of his life and actions, Paul is telling the king (and us) that converts, those who are in the process of sanctification, should repent; turn to God and do deeds (WORKS) worthy of their repentance. This is what Paul has been preaching his whole career throughout the world! Thus, we must read all of Paul’s letters in this light. Hence, this passage is sort of an Answer Key, something that shows whether we are interpreting the meaning of Paul’s other writings correctly.
As an aside note that the word “should” modifies the sentence. It states, “… that they should repent and turn to God and perform deeds worthy of their repentance.” The word “should” implies choice, i.e., free will.
Tomorrow: Acts 27:1-26
Today’s reading: Acts 25
After Paul is held in prison for two years the Roman governor Felix is replaced by a new governor named Porcius Festus. The Jewish authorities see it as an opportunity to break the stalemate and renew their charges against Paul. Here again, we see the trial play out in a manner similar to how the trial of Jesus unfolded. Festus can find no wrongdoing in Paul but we are told that Festus wanted to “do the Jews a favor” so he asked Paul if he wanted to be returned to Jerusalem to stand trial with his people.
Paul, wise to what is unfolding, rejects the proposal and instead invokes his Roman right to appeal to Caesar. This is a good example of Paul fulfilling Jesus teaching to be, “as wise as serpents…” (Matthew 10:16). Paul knows he can’t get a fair trial in Jerusalem and now he sees that Festus will not go out on a limb for him either so he invokes his right to go to Rome. Paul is using the legal system, the legitimate tools he has at his disposal, to keep preaching the gospel. We too are confronted with the same choice in the modern age. Recently, government mandates have intruded on religious liberty and it is within the purview of Christians to use the legal system to defend their interests.
Tomorrow: Acts 26
Today’s reading: Acts 24
Today we read about Paul who is a “guest” of the Roman governor Felix for two years. Felix is an interesting character. He is a Roman governor but also married to a Jew. We read this about him:
But Felix, having a rather accurate knowledge of the Way, put them off, saying, “When Lysias the tribune comes down, I will decide your case.” Then he gave orders to the centurion that he should be kept in custody but have some liberty and that none of his friends should be prevented from attending to his needs. After some days Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.”
Felix, having a Jewish wife, means he would have likely been familiar with the basic of the Old Testament and Jewish beliefs and practice. The text also says that he had accurate knowledge of the “the way” (an early name of Christianity). Felix seems to have more than a passing interest in what Paul is saying and the text implies that his discussions with Paul take place over a period of time. Certainly, Paul, the greatest evangelist, could keep his attention and would never grow tired of discussing the subject.
Why then doesn’t Felix convert?
I think the answer must lie in where all sins begin – pride. Felix is Roman, his citizenship gives him privilege. He’s also a governor; he has status and is likely wealth. His relatives are probably upper-class Roman’s as well, perhaps his position had originally been obtained through his family’s political connections. Like most Roman governors he is probably hoping to one day return to Rome and to continue to climb the political ladder. On his wife’s side of the family, he has Jewish relatives. Again, it is also fair to speculate that if their daughter married a Roman they are at least upper-class Jews. We see from the last two chapters the growing divide between the Jews and the Christians with the traditional Jewish people referring to Christians as the “sect of Nazarenes”. Recall the attitude that was common at the time, “nothing good ever came from Nazareth”. (John 1:46)
If Felix had converted what would have likely happened. His Roman relatives would have likely been mortified. To be a Roman governor you would be expected to do Roman things. He would have been expected to make sacrifices to Roman gods and to consider the emperor a god on earth. As a Christian, he would have been prohibited from doing those things. As a governor, he was bound to enforce Roman justice with an iron fist and a firm resolve but Christianity calls us to love our enemies and to show mercy. Felix’s political career, everything he had planned for since childhood, everything he had trained for, all the sacrifices he had made to obtain his high position, and everything he had believed and valued up until then would be gone, vanished overnight simply by accepting the Christian faith.
His Jewish in-laws would likely have ostracized him as well. Having their daughter married to a powerful politically connected Roman pagan was one thing but having her married to a disgraced ex-roman official who followed the embarrassing sect that worshiped a crucified carpenter who promised to destroy the temple would be something else. His wife would have likely divorced him or been hidden away by her family.
This is the crux of the dilemma that remains for many people even to this day. To convert, to accept the truth that you have come to know means that in some way you must admit that previously you were wrong. You have to admit to your family and friends that you’ve made mistakes. It might cost you your job or your opportunity at advancement. It might offend your friends or relatives. It might even cost you your identity, who you defined yourself as. That’s a hard thing to do even under the best circumstances. Through pride in the mix and the stumbling blocks might seem too great.
Of course, intellectually we all know we are all called to do this. To turn away from what we think, what we want, and how we define ourselves and to turn to a deeper relationship with truth, who is the Lord.
Tomorrow: Acts 25
Today’s reading: Acts 23:12-35
Today we read sort of a mundane but insightful vignette in the beginning of what will be Paul’s final journey. Being held in custody in part to protect him from the Jewish crowds and in part because of the Romans pathological need to keep the peace the Roman leader learns of a plot to kill Paul. So he sends Paul to the Roman governor Felix. This will prevent the Jewish leaders from getting their hands on Paul and require them to go and make their case against Paul on the merits.
What is interesting is the contrast between the situation Paul finds himself in and the situation the led to Jesus crucifixion. Up until now, they have been largely similar but now they begin to diverge. Whereas Jesus had no rights, Paul by virtue of his Roman citizenship is entitled to certain legal protections. Now the power of the Roman state will begin to be turned to the advantage of the Christians. It is Roman legal protections that will keep Paul alive for an extended period of time. It is Roman roads that will take him to the capital. It is Roman mail that will deliver his letters that will later comprise the bulk of the New Testament. Historians are unanimous is their agreement that it is the Roman infrastructure that will allow Christianity to spread so quickly and effectively through the Roman Empire, that and the Holy Spirit of course.
Tomorrow: Acts 24
Today’s reading: Acts 22:30 – 23:11
Paul is being held by the Romans for his own protection. He is taken to the Sanhedrin so the Romans can learn exactly what he is accused of. There he debates with the Jewish leaders. When Paul argues that he is on trial for preaching the resurrection of the dead the hearing descends into chaos. Old rivalries erupt between the Pharisees (who believe in a resurrection) and the Sadducees (who do not). Paul is whisked away by the Romans to keep him safe. The Lord then speaks to Paul:
The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”
Whereas before God sent the Jewish people into the Holy Land and commanded the scourge of paganism to be removed now he is sending his emissaries into the great heart of paganism. Again the idols and the false temples will be torn down. In their place, new churches will be built. Great Churches that contain the new sacrifice and the new temple will be built there. Both Peter and Paul will travel there and both will be martyred there. On top of Peter’s bones the greatest of these Churches will be built, bring to fulfillment the prophecy of Jesus, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church”.
Tomorrow: Acts 23:12-35
Today’s reading: Acts 22:17-29
Today we read a short passage of how the crowd of Jews rejects Paul after he tells them that Jesus sent him to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. The resulting fury of the crowd compels the Roman tribune to remove Paul from the Temple. For good measure, he decides to have Paul scourged.
However, after he is tied up but just before the scourging is about to begin Paul lets the guard know that he is a Roman citizen. One of the privileges of Roman citizenship is that they are not allowed to suffer the punishment of scourging. A quick inquiry is made and the punishment is canceled.
It has always struck me that one reason God must have chosen Paul for the task of evangelization is that he was both Jewish and Roman. Thus, he was capable of traveling is both worlds. Another lesson we learn from this incident is about suffering. We know that suffering is valuable. Paul will write that he is happy to suffer for the kingdom of God and the salvation of souls. However, notice, we are not called on to suffer needlessly. Paul could have kept silent and suffered the scourging but he didn’t. He told the Roman guards and prevented it. As Christians, we are therefore not called to suffer needlessly. However, when suffering does come, we should embrace it, bear it lovingly and offer it up for the forgiveness of sins and the salvation of souls.
Tomorrow: Acts 22:30 – 23:11
Today’s reading: Acts 21:31 -22:16
Today we read the speech delivered by Paul to the crowd in the temple that wants to kill him. He starts by speaking Hebrew. This is to let the crowd know that he is a Jew. Then he details his bona fides that he studied under the great Rabbi Gamaliel and that he previously earnestly persecuted the Christians.
Notice he recounts his conversion and he repeats the words Jesus said to him precisely. Jesus said to Paul, “Saul, Saul why do you persecute ME”. It wasn’t a mistake or a misstatement. Jesus is so intimately connected to us that he counts the persecutions of this followers the same as if he is being persecuted himself.
Then we read this important statement about Paul’s baptism:
And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.
Notice, here baptism is described as having the effect of washing away your sins. It is not merely a symbol of an inner reality (although it is that too) but it is an action that has the effect of doing what it represents. This is the definition of sacrament. Christ gave us instructions to do things. If these things were merely symbols there would be no effective change from the old covenant. However, because Christ’s sacrifice is effective and because Jesus is so closely united with the Church the things Jesus instructed us to do are effective. That is why we see here that when Paul talks about baptism he says it actually washes away sins. That is why when we see the Apostles lay hands on converts we are told that the Holy Spirit actually comes down upon them. That is why marriage is an unbreakable bond between two people where the husband and wife become one flesh. That is why when the Priest says, “this is my body” it actually becomes the body and blood of the Lord.
Tomorrow: Acts 22:17-29