Scripture versus experience

November 1 — Acts 12:1-11; November 8 — Acts 15:1-12; November 15 — Acts 16:1-15

Oct 26, 2015 by

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Our next three lessons cover large developments in the Jerusalem church and beyond.

Reta Halteman Finger


In Acts 12 we find Peter in prison guarded by four squads of soldiers. King Herod Agrippa, after beheading the apostle James, was all set to exhibit Peter as a traitor after Passover. The last time we heard about persecution was from the Sanhedrin and their high priests (5:17-42) and the Hellenist Jews stoning Stephen (7:54-60). This collaboration shows the tight connection between religious institutions and political power.

However, the king is more brutal than were the high priests. (This king is Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great. Luke purposely calls him Herod to remind readers of his connection to the oppressive Herod dynasty.)

Although Peter is the main character in this account of his miraculous release from prison, a young servant named Rhoda is the real hero (12:12-19). She comes to the outer gate of Mary’s house when he knocks, but no one of the group inside praying for Peter believes her until she insists. What a triumphant ending to that prayer meeting!

Question: Why did an angel of the Lord deliver Peter from impending death but allow James to be beheaded?

The scene changes again, and we visit the church in Antioch, where Barnabas and Saul are commissioned for missionary work. Acts 13 and 14 tell of their adventures on this first venture westward. Our lesson for Nov. 8 will not make sense unless we witness the significant shift that took place on this journey. Just as Mennonites planning a trip turn to the Mennonite-Your-Way directory, so Barnabas and Saul (Paul in Greek) “Jewed”-their-way to Cyprus and around what is now the eastern part of Turkey. Each Sabbath they would visit the local synagogue and preach to Jews about Messiah Jesus.

Paul’s sermon in Pisidian Antioch is recorded in Acts 13. By the next Sabbath he draws a city-wide crowd. But the Jewish leaders react with jealousy, so both Paul and Barnabas declare that, on the basis of Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6, they are “now turning to the Gentiles.” So the drama continues until they return to Antioch, reporting that God “had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles” (14:24).

Apparently Peter’s previous visit with Cornelius has not convinced the most conservative Jesus-Jews, for some of them travel from Judea to Antioch and begin to teach the necessity of circumcision for male Gentiles. They certainly have a point, for nothing is clearer in the sacred Pentateuch than male circumcision as the sign of God’s covenant with God’s people.

This is huge! At issue is Scripture versus experience. God’s law versus grace and spirit. Traditionalists versus progressives. Acts 15:1-35 reports on the council called in Jerusalem with Paul, Barnabas, Peter and all the apostles and elders, who meet to decide what the church should believe and teach. Here Peter weighs in with Paul and Barnabas because of his previous contact with Cornelius. Everyone listens carefully, but they are all aware that polarization will only break up the fledgling movement.

Finally James, the brother of Jesus who has become the leader of the Jerusalem church, takes the floor. James knows he and all other conservatives must have a scriptural basis for such a drastic shift in practice. He cites a text from the Septuagint (Greek version) of Amos 9:11-12, along with allusions from other prophets to make the case that Gentiles are now being called by God’s name (Acts 15:15-18).

James then proposes to have a letter sent to believing Gentiles. No circumcision is required, but observe other laws in Exodus and Leviticus — such as no idolatry, fornication or eating blood — to maintain separation from pagans. This is agreed upon, and peace and unity are restored, at least for now.

For discussion: Why was it important for Luke to recount Peter’s visit with Cornelius before reporting on Barnabas’ and Paul’s experiences with believing Gentiles? What insights from Acts 15 could be used to solve similar scripture-versus-experience conflicts today?

Our Nov. 15 lesson finds Paul again on the road, but with Silas rather than Bar­nabas. (Yes, apostles disagree like the rest of us!) Returning to Lys­tra, Paul finds an eager helper in young Timothy. He has him circumcised — a wise compromise, since he has a Jewish mother.

Leaving Asia Minor for what is now Europe, the three travelers arrive in the Roman colony of Philippi. Jewish men are scarce here, so there is no synagogue. Instead, women have set up a place by the river for Sabbath prayers. (Thankfully, no immediate circumcision issues!)

Here Paul meets Lydia, a businesswoman and God-worshiper. Women have more legal rights in the western part of the Empire, and feisty Lydia apparently leads both the prayer meeting and her own household. After they are baptized, she convinces the traveling preachers to stay with her.

They do, and before you know it, Paul is in trouble again! Read the rest of Acts 16 to find out.

Reta Halteman Finger is retired from Messiah College, teaches Bible part-time at Eastern Mennonite University and has written Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts.

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