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II.  The Church reaches out to Judea, Samaria and beyond (Part 1)

In this next section, Luke tells how the Church moved beyond -- or better was moved beyond -- its work in Jerusalem to develop a missionary strategy and style. Luke does not, again, detail all the developments in the life of the early Christian community. Instead, his work seems to be focused on one particular thrust: namely, how the Church moved into a mission to Gentiles.

Since the section following this one has to do with Paul’s work among and to the Gentiles, this central section forms a sort of bridge between the earliest work and Paul’s great journeys. It answers the question: How did the Church get from here (Jerusalem) to there (Paul’s mission). Persecution leads to Dispersion

Luke understands the martyrdom of Stephen to have been the occasion a more widespread persecution of the community. He does not fill in any of the details for us; thus we are left to some conjecture.

From the evidence which Luke presents, we must conclude that “they were all scattered” really means “many” were scattered. For one thing, the apostles are left in the city of Jerusalem. This could have been a rather large number. Then, too, Luke says “devout men” buried Stephen: surely if this meant only the apostles, he would have said so.

From what Luke tells us, it appears that basically the Hellenistic Jewish Christians were the targets of the persecution, and that they primarily constitute the group that was “scattered.” Of course, others -- the Palestinian Jewish Christians -- may also have left town for fear of a spreading persecution.

The persecutors are not specified, but Luke -- after carefully building a case that the Christians were highly honored by the common people -- cannot mean that the persecution was a general one. If that were so, he would most certainly have reported the tide of public opinion shifting in some manner. We conclude, then, that the persecution came from the religious establishment -- from the top down. Of course, this might well have given occasion for SOME of the common people to turn on their Christian neighbors, but they were probably not many in number.

Luke does not tell us where all the “scattered” went. He does mention Judea and Samaria. It would be natural for many of the dispersed to settle in these regions -- but probably many more simply traveled through them on their way home to their native lands. Luke mentions these two primarily because his focus of attention will be turned to them next.

Luke uses the opportunity to again draw our attention to Saul, one of the leading persecutors of the faithful.

We are probably correct to assume that the remaining Christians in Jerusalem continued their work and worship as before, for the most part.

8.4-13: The Work of Philip in Samaria

Luke informs us that many of those who “scattered” on account of the persecution began to preach in the new communities to which they went. As one instance of this activity, Luke will introduce Philip.

Philip was a colleague of Stephen, a member of the Seven (Deacons). This Philip is not to be confused with Philip the Apostle - for convenience, he is called Philip the Evangelist.

Vs. 8.5 says simply that Philip proclaimed “the Christ.” This does not give us much to go on in order to understand Philip’s theology. “The Christ” as a title would mean “the anointed” -- a title for God’s chosen king. Therefore, it is likely that Philip taught that the kingdom of God was breaking into the world through the presence and work of Jesus -- the chosen king. This is confirmed by 8.12. Philip, then, proclaimed the same message as was being preached in Jerusalem, and he was also baptizing people as a sign of their entrance into that kingdom. Both men and women were baptized (vs. 12).

Philip’s preaching was also accompanied by “signs.” Although Luke tells us that Stephen was “full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (6-5), he does not so describe Philip. Yet, the presence of “signs” in his work (hearings, exorcisms, etc.) would be evidence for Luke that the Holy Spirit was indeed with him.

Philip made an impact on the city (the city is unnamed -- evidently not an important urban center in Samaria). The deacon-evangelist was planting a church here in new territory. Notice that “joy” is the mark of the kingdom (8.8).

In the course of his work, Philip attracts the attention of one Simon. It is apparent that Simon was a professional magus - a “magician” who would be employed by various people to perform rituals or incantations intended to influence the gods or the course of nature. (One classical definition of magic is “the use of things natural to affect things supernatural.”)

Magic and magicians, coming from Mesopotamia, were uniformly regarded as superstitious and idolatrous practices in the OT -- though it is clear that many people even among the Israelites practiced magical arts or consulted magicians (e.g., King Saul and the Witch of Endor, 1 Sam 28.7ff.).

Later Christians, on encountering magicians, sternly denounced them as liars and idolaters (e.g., Peter in this case; Paul against Elymas, Ac 13.6-12).

Simon was the leader of an established community, and he even had a formal title “that power of God which is called Great.” As a Samaritan, he followed the Samaritan form of Judaism; his was a kind of religious movement.

Philip baptized Simon and the latter became a “disciple” of Philip. It does not appear, however, that Philip either corrected Simon or that Simon dropped his profession. It is easy to imagine that such a “conversion” would create a stir and some “publicity.”

It is also problematic: the conversion of Simon raises questions about the methods and approach of Philip.

8.14-25: Peter and John are sent out on an “inspection tour.”

Vs. 8.14 informs us that word of the ministry in Samaria got back to the apostolic community in Jerusalem. The community dispatches Peter and John on an “inspection tour,” presumably to see how the work was going and undoubtedly to be sure that it was orthodox.

The precise intent of the inspection tour is not described. Certainly, much general interest may have attached to the work in Samaria. But since Peter and John head straight for Philip and his community, it is hard to dismiss the idea that the trip was motivated by reports of the conversion of Simon. The apostolic community was doubtless very concerned about what was going on “out there.”

Vss. 8.15-16 indicates that Peter and John, now working as apostles, discovered a serious defect in the teaching of Philip. Philip had been baptizing his followers in the name of Jesus. But they had not yet received the Holy Spirit. We cannot be entirely sure what this means. 8.17 gives the impression that the Spirit was conceived as some kind of force or power that could be conveyed only by the apostles. Yet, vs. 15 implies that Philip should have been able to bring the Holy Spirit to his converts.

Conferring of the Holy Spirit meant a change of life. Apparently, Philip was a good teacher and preacher, but did not bring his converts to see the radical difference the Christian life must make in everyday living (that is why Simon is allowed to continue his profession). The apostles are able to bring a fuller view of the Christian life to the community which Philip founded; that is, they brought the Holy Spirit!

Peter firmly confronts Simon when he offers to buy the power which he sees at work in the apostles and in those who receive the Holy spirit.

Peter’s response to Simon is illuminating on the matter of the Holy Spirit. He tells Simon that “he is not right with God.” Furthermore, it is Simon who bears the responsibility to make adjustments in his life. Finally, he must pray, seeking God’s will for his life, not his own. It seems clear that all these factors have a bearing on who is and who is not living in the Holy Spirit. (In other words, life in the Spirit is a practical matter of attitude and actions, not some “mysterious” force.)

Simon seems to have a change of heart, and accepts the apostle’s charge (8.24). (Tradition informs us that Simon exercised some kind of leadership in the Christian community there: “disciples” of Simon persisted as late as the third century.) Later Christian writers, however, spoke of Simon as the “father of all heresies.” This seems to be based on this story in Acts rather than on concrete evidence that the man persisted in his profession.)

Peter and John, after leaving Philip, continue on their inspection tour. One has the feeling that this task was given more urgency by the discovery of the defects of Philip’s work, rather than a general interest in seeing what was going on.

The importance of this episode is that the Jerusalem community felt obligated and authorized to exert leadership over what was becoming a far-flung enterprise. We should note that no specific authorization had been given the dispersed disciples to preach and form churches. There was, of course, no prohibition against doing so, either. Apparently, every Christian felt “authorized” to proclaim Jesus as Christ by virtue of their baptism and their instruction in Christianity.

8.26-40: Philip continues his work

Apparently, Philip learned what he needed to from the visit by the apostles Peter and John. So we find him in this section continuing his work.

Luke’s explanation for Philip’s movement is direct inspiration of “the Lord.” The initial goal of Philip’s movement was Gaza.

On the way, Philip met a eunuch of Ethiopia. The exact location is not given -- the likely place being somewhere in the area of Betagabris.

Candace is not the name of the queen, though Luke takes it to be that; it is the native word for Queen.

The eunuch is a treasurer who serves the Queen.

The eunuch is a “proselyte” -- a Gentile interested in or converted to the Jewish faith. He is studying the Old Testament. He is puzzled by a certain text (Isa 53.7-8). The opportunity to interpret this text -- one that became so important to the early Christians -- was seized by Philip. Evidently, Philip described Jesus as the servant of YHWH, who suffered and died “as a sheep led to the slaughter.” But the good news is that Jesus rose from the dead: “For his life is taken up from the earth.” Since the episode ends with baptism, it is very likely -- indeed inevitable -- that Philip explains the existence of the Church as the sign of the new kingdom instituted by God through his “servant” Jesus, and that baptism is the means of entrance into that community.

Luke mysteriously describes Philip’s departure (8.39). In any case, Philip is found at work next in Azotus (the Ashdod, Philistine city of the OT).

Luke notes that Philip eventually worked his way up along the coast from Azotus to Caesarea. The success of Philip can be measured by the fact that 20 years later, as Paul is on his final journey to Jerusalem, Philip is found as head of a Church in Caesarea. (Ac 21.8-14) Philip has also acquired a wife, a house, and four daughters -- each of whom is called a “prophetess,” i.e., a female preacher.

9.1-30: Saul is converted to the Christian faith:

Vs. 9.1: Luke does not lay out a handy time line. Instead, he is here drawing out roughly simultaneous events. In this case, he directs our attention back to a time when Philip was carrying out his mission to catch us up on Saul’s history.

After the martyrdom of Stephen, as we saw, Christians -- probably Hellenistic Jewish Christians -- were dispersed to other villages and towns. Surely some of these went as far as Damascus -- to the far north. Saul, in an attempt to root out the Christian “heresy” (from his point of view) sought and received permission to travel to Damascus and arrest Christians.

On one such trip -- the date unknown -- Saul is confronted by the risen Christ. (More on the nature of this encounter below.) The result of this encounter is a commission -- so Paul understood it -- and a directive: “enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

Paul (the Greek form of Saul) was blinded by his encounter: this may refer to a psycho­somatic condition, or to inner confusion over the meaning of the event. In any case, Paul is led into Damascus, where he awaits the next step in deep prayer (9.1 1).

Through the providence of God, a certain Ananias -- a Christian -is led to the place where Paul stayed, and is told how to instruct the new “disciple.” Ananias is hesitant to respond affirmatively -can the Lord be so strong as to overcome even the single-minded Paul?

Ananias goes to Paul, lays hands upon him, and confers the Holy Spirit upon him. Paul is healed, baptized and strengthened. The mention of “taking food” may well be a reference to participation in the Eucharist. Luke’s description is very short and filled with a certain mysteriousness. We may well see in this event, however, a period of instruction and training, even “ordination” of a sort. 9.1 9b says that Paul stayed “several days” with the disciples in Damascus -- an indeterminate period of time.

It is clear from the text that Paul received the idea of a commission to the Gentiles through the instrumentality of Ananias.

Paul is said to have immediately begun to preach. Paul brought with him considerable gifts of learning -- this is the general picture which we receive from Paul as well as Luke -- so that it is quite possible that he lost no time in getting on with his new faith.

CONVERSION maybe too strong a word to use in describing the turn around which changed Paul. He was not, strictly speaking, converted FROM his Jewish faith -- he came, instead, through the encounter with the risen Christ, to see and understand his inherited faith in a new and fuller light. When it is said that he proclaimed Jesus as “the Son of God,” Paul understood Jesus as the very presence of God in human life (that is what the term means). Thus, he would have seen Jesus as the fulfillment of the UT prophetic hope, and was able to re-appropriate and re-cast his OT learning in this new, fulfilled mode.

What happened next? We get one impression from Luke: namely that after an attempt on Paul’s life -- occasioned by his preaching in Damascus Paul left immediately for Jerusalem. But from the Galatian Letter, Paul himself seems to give another account. To that we must now turn.

PAUL’S TRIPS TO JERUSALEM: Galatians and Acts Compared:

Galatians 1.13-2.1 (Paul) Acts 9.22-30 (Luke)
13 For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it.
14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.
15 But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased
16 to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man,
17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus. 
18 Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days.
19 I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord's brother.
20 I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.
21 Later I went to Syria and Cilicia.
22 I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ.
23 They only heard the report: "The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy."
24 And they praised God because of me.
2.1 Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also.
22 Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.
23 After many days had gone by, the Jews conspired to kill him,
24 but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him.
25 But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall.
26 When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple.
27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus.
28 So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.
29 He talked and debated with the Grecian Jews, but they tried to kill him. 30When the brothers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.

Paul says:

  1. vs. 16 - “I did not confer with flesh and blood”
  2. vs. l7a - “nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me”
  3. vs. 17b - “but I went away into Arabia”
  4. vs. 17c - “and again I returned to Damascus”

Point 3) has always given the impression that Paul went out into the desert to contemplate his next action, and his new faith.

Luke puts the course of events slightly differently: see 9.22-30.

  1. vs. 22 - “But Saul ... lived in Damascus”
  2. vs. 24 - “[The Jews-] were watching the gates day and night, to kill him [Paul]”
  3. vs. 25 - “his disciples” secretly help Paul to escape from the city
  4. vs. 25 - Paul winds up in Jerusalem

How can these accounts be reconciled, if at all?

Damascus was a walled city, just outside whose gates lay the territory known as Arabia -- the Nabataean Kingdom.

Paul lived in Damascus, but mindful of the charge to go to the Gentiles, he soon gets restless and leaves the city by day (apparently also at night sometimes) to carry on some preaching there. (The phrase, “went away into Arabia”, really means nothing more than that he went out or away from his dwelling place into a different territory -- it does not, as in English, imply a long journey.)

The urgency which Paul felt is understandable in terms of the peculiar spiritual experience which he had just had.

The fact that Paul was known to go in and out of the city on his ‘missionary’ work is attested by the fact that the “Jews” (probably the leaders) posted themselves at the gate to catch Paul.

After his escape Paul feels it is probably safer to be in Jerusalem.

Thus we can say that Paul worked for a short time in Damascus, preaching in the synagogues, working out his new ‘theology,’ and venturing outside the Jewish community to begin his work among Gentiles in Nabataea (Arabia).

9.22-30: The trip to Jerusalem:

We have a problem with the accounts given in Acts, and Paul’s own description of his activity given in Galatians:

Acts describes three visits made by Paul to Jerusalem BEFORE his final voyage which ended in his arrest.

Paul himself seems emphatic that he made only two trips to Jerusalem during the same period.

Let’s get a picture of what Paul says:

Paul’s intention in writing this passage is to show that he is not dependent on Jerusalem for either his authority as an apostle, or the substance of his ‘gospel’ (his theology, his message)( 1-11). (Jewish Christians at Galatia had contended that Paul was an impostor apostle, and a second-rate one at that!)

He cites only two occasions when he met with the leading apostles in the Jerusalem community: once about three years after his conversion; then again about 14 years later.

Of the first trip, he says that he went “to visit Cephas” (1.18), and stayed with him 15 days. He says he saw none of the other apostles, except James, the Lord’s brother.

After this brief visit, Paul says he went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia (he would naturally pass through Syria on his way to his hometown, Tarsus, in the region of Cilicia).

Paul says he was not known to the churches in Judea “by sight” (they of course knew his reputation as a persecutor).

Then, after 14 years, Paul says he returned -- with Barnabas and Titus --to Jerusalem. He emphasizes that he “went up by revelation” (2.2 this means it was no personal mission he was on). The purpose of the visit -- where he again saw Cephas and James, and saw in addition a number of the “pillars” of the Jerusalem community, including John --was to “lay before them [publicly] ... the Gospel which I preach among the Gentiles."

Now let’s get a picture of what the Acts says:

Paul, on coming to Jerusalem, attempted to join the disciples (the community), but they were afraid of him. Barnabas, however, befriended Paul, and brought him to the apostles (unnamed). Barnabas, moreover, acted as a go-between, interpreting Paul’s recent experience -- including his encounter with Christ and his preaching activity. Luke says Paul moved freely among the community at Jerusalem -- though he does not indicate that he did so outside the city. Luke closes by saying that the community there saw to it that Paul was brought safely to Caesarea, where he departed for Tarsus.

Luke now relates a second visit to Jerusalem: this was occasioned by a “revelation” from a prophet named Agabus, who foretold a famine. The disciples (community) at Antioch, where Paul was now ministering, decided to take up a collection and to send it, by Paul and Barnabas, to the community at Jerusalem -- and the two carried out the wishes of the community.

Luke finally relates a visit to Jerusalem by Paul and Barnabas (and “some others”) prompted by the arrival in Antioch of some Jewish Christians who maintained that only persons who had been circumcised could be admitted to the community. This position caused a stir in the (predominantly) gentile community at Antioch, and a delegation was appointed to present the case in Jerusalem. Luke says that Paul and Barnabas were “welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders” at Jerusalem, and that their work was confirmed.

These accounts can be squared as follows:

Paul’s own argument concerns contact with the apostolic leaders of the Jerusalem community. From Acts, we discover that only on two of the three visits recorded did Paul have contact with the apostolic leaders. The second visit, unmentioned by Paul himself, was a very brief, very specific trip: it certainly did not require a meeting with the whole community, nor with the apostles.

The final visit, as related by the two sources, appear to be the same in every detail: except Luke mentions “others”, Paul only mentions Titus. But this is probably due to the fact that Titus became a “cause célèbre” --the focus of a debate over circumcision.

The first visit presents some difficulties in detail, but is clearly the same event written up in different ways in the two sources.

It is conceivable that Paul saw only two apostles, Cephas and James, while seeing others in the Jerusalem community (Barnabas, for example; he was not yet considered an “apostle”).

Luke may have heard about this story (even from Paul) and assumed that “the apostles” meant more than just Peter and James (it is significant that Luke gives a vague notice rather than naming names). Nothing that Luke saws necessarily contradicts Paul’s version.

Paul does not report anything that transpired during that time: his point is simply that the apostles did not give Paul any instructions. Luke’s version confirms this: All that Barnabas does is relate Paul’s experience and his Damascus preaching -- he does not seek, nor does Paul, any confirmation from the Apostles. (Incidentally, the failure to mention Paul’s work in Nabataea (Arabia) may have been a politic move: the apostolic community does not show any awareness that the Gospel had been or would be preached to Gentiles; Paul was doubtless not ready to engage in a debate over this issue at this time).

Paul maintains that he was not known by sight to the churches in Judea -- which, though he was known in Jerusalem, would remain true if we accept Luke’s account. Nothing here necessarily contradicts Paul’s word.

Here, then, is the reconstruction of events as we can best order them:


32 AD   Stephen martyred
33 AD   Paul becomes a Christian
35 AD Late Paul's first visit to Jerusalem
48 AD   Paul's journey to the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15)

Philip's Mission map

Philip's Missions