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THE BOOK OF ACTS: PART TWENTY-ONE

SERMON DELIVERED ON 12-01-18

 

       In the last sermon in this series we covered the first part of a missionary journey embarked on by Paul and Barnabas and their companion John Mark as covered in Acts 13. This journey began in Seleucia, continued on to Salamis on the eastern end of the island of Cyprus and then to the far western Cyprian town of Paphos.   From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, where John Mark left them to return to Jerusalem.  From Perga they went on to Pisidian Antioch.  They were well received in Pisidian Antioch which made the Jewish leadership jealous resulting in Paul and Barnabas being run out of town.  They then traveled to Iconium. 

       Acts 14:1-4: At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed. But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders.

       As was true in Pisidian Antioch, Paul and Barnabas preached to both Jews and Gentiles at the Jewish synagogue. It is recorded this was their usual practice.

The Synagogue:

       “Synagogue” is the transliteration of a Greek word that literally means a gathering of people.  A transliteration is where you match the letters of a word in one alphabet with the letters of a word in a different alphabet. In the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, this Greek word is used over 200 times to refer to a gathering of people.

       In the Greek Scriptures, the word came to be regularly used to designate the location where such gathering takes place. Buildings were Jews gathered on the Sabbath to worship came to be called synagogues.

       The synagogue as a place of assembly is believed to have first appeared at the time of the Babylonian captivity when Solomon’s temple was destroyed and the need arose for the Jewish captives to meet in community of worship.  While there is no direct mention of such gathering places in the OT, it is evident that the synagogue was an established institution in the first century.  The synagogue is mentioned dozens of times in the four Gospels and the book of Acts but is not mentioned in the letters of Paul or other epistles found in the NT narrative except for James 2:2 where this Greek word is rendered as meeting or assembly.

       In his book entitled Antiquities, first century Jewish historian Josephus writes that synagogues were used in a variety of ways including being used as schools, as a place to hold communal meals, as hostels, and even for political meetings.  This was all in addition to their use as a place of Sabbath worship were the Law and the Prophets were read and discussed.

       We saw in Acts 13 that Paul and Barnabas preached to both Jews and Gentiles in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. We see the same in Iconium. Paul and Barnabas are preaching to both Jews and Gentiles. Since the synagogue was a place Jews would gather on the Sabbath to read from the Hebrew Scriptures, it is evident the Gentiles present in the synagogue were Jewish proselytes. The English word proselyte is from the Greek word proselutos and basically means to embrace a belief one didn’t formally have. Pagan Gentiles would not have been welcome in the synagogue on the Sabbath or would they have been interested in being there. These Gentiles were converts to Judaism or in the process of becoming converts.

       It is instructive that in Acts 13 where it is said the people invited Paul and Barnabas to speak further to them, the Greek word rendered “people” is ethnos which is a reference to a Gentile.  Some translations render ethnos in this passage as “Gentiles.”

       Acts 13: 42-43: As Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, the people (ethnos) invited them to speak further about these things on the next Sabbath. When the congregation was dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.

       The devout converts to Judaism were the Gentiles in the group. The English word convert in this passage is a rendering of the Greek proselutos. The Septuagint translators used proselutos some 80 times in their Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures to refer to non-Israelites who becomes part of the Israelite community.  This Greek word in the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures is often rendered into English as “stranger” or “sojourner.”  

       Therefore, it should be apparent that when Paul and Barnabas are seen as bringing the Gospel message to Jews and to Gentiles in a synagogue, the Gentiles are proselytes to Judaism.  However, there apparently were two types of Gentile proselytes in view in NT times according to historical sources from that period.  There was the “proselyte of righteousness” who was a proselyte who became circumcised and required to keep the entire Law of Moses.

       Secondly, there was the “proselyte of the gate.”  This type of proselyte was not required to be circumcised nor keep the whole Mosaic Law.  This type of proselyte was only required to keep certain Mosaic regulations such as prohibition against  idolatry, blasphemy against God, homicide, unchastity, theft or plundering, rebellion against rulers and the eating of animal flesh with the blood still in the meat.  Some have conjectured that Cornelius and the Ethiopian eunuch were this type of proselyte.

       Both the “proselyte of righteousness” and the “proselyte of the gate” were allowed to join with the Jews in synagogue activities, including Sabbath worship.  In reading through the Book of Acts, it appears it was these kinds of Gentiles that Paul was largely ministering too and it was in Jewish synagogues on the Sabbath where these Gentiles could be found. We see throughout the Book of Acts Paul preaching on the Sabbath in Jewish synagogues.

       In Acts 9:20 it’s recorded that after Paul’s conversion he began to immediately preach in the synagogue at Damascus.  In Acts 13:4 we find Paul preaching in the synagogue at Salamis.  At Pisidian Antioch we see Paul preaching at the synagogue on the Sabbath to both Jews and Gentiles.  We see Paul doing the same at Iconium. In Acts 17 it is recorded that Paul on three different Sabbath days preached in a synagogue in Thessalonica to both Jews and Gentiles. The Gentiles are described here as “God-fearing Greeks.”

       The term God-fearing is found several time in the NT narrative in reference to Gentiles who are seen participating in synagogue worship. This appears to be another way of describing Gentiles who were proselytes of one kind or another.  These were Gentiles who acknowledged and worshiped the one true God.  They may have been formerly polytheistic pagans but at some point had come to believe in the same God the Jews believed in and participated with them in the worship of the God of Israel.

       After Paul left Thessalonica, he traveled to Berea and went to the Jewish synagogue there where it is recorded he preached to both Jews and Greeks. In Acts 17:16-17 it’s recorded that Paul, while in Athens, reasoned with both Jews and Greeks at the synagogue.  It is also recorded that he did the same in the marketplace with those who happened to be there.  This is the first account of Paul preaching somewhere outside a Jewish synagogue.

       Acts 17:17:  So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.

       After Paul left Athens, he went to Corinth where it is recorded that every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and Greeks.  From Athens, Paul traveled to Ephesus where it is recorded he went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. In Acts 19, it is recorded that Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly about the Kingdom of God for three months and then lectured at another location to both Jews and Greeks for an additional two years.

       So what are we to conclude from all this as to the ministry of Paul. As already pointed out, in Acts 13 we see Paul and Barnabas ministering to both Jews and Greeks on the Sabbath in the Jewish synagogue at Pisidian Antioch. It is recorded that the people (Gentiles) invited them to speak further to them on the next Sabbath.  It is further recorded that many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism (Gentile proselytes) followed Paul and Barnabas who urged them to continue in the grace of God. On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord.

       In verse 45 of Acts 13, it is recorded that the Jews were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying.  Here is how Paul and Barnabas answered.

       Acts 13:46-47: Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: "We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. For this is what the Lord has commanded us: "`I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.' "

       Some see this as the official kickoff to Paul taking the Gospel message to the Gentiles. Some have seen this as Paul now focusing only on the Gentiles at the exclusion of the Jews. Neither perspective is correct.  As we have seen, Paul had already been preaching to both Jews and Gentiles in various Jewish synagogues throughout the region virtually from the time of his conversion.  As we have also seen, Paul appears to continue this practice throughout his ministry.

       While Paul may have now placed a greater focus on preaching to the Gentiles and establishing Gentile churches, the Book of Acts clearly shows Paul continued to preach to the Jews as well.  So when it is said Paul was an Apostle to the Gentiles, it does not exclude the Jews as it is clear he continued to preach Christ to the Jews as well.

       Furthermore, it should be noted that when it is said Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles it appears that the Gentiles he was an apostle too were largely proselytes of Judaism.  As we have observed, Paul is seen as preaching to Gentiles on the Sabbath in Jewish synagogues. These Gentiles would not have been in a synagogue on the Sabbath unless they were worshipers of the God of Israel.

       Therefore, it is apparent the Gentiles Paul preached too were already converted in that they had left the polytheism of the Roman and Greek world and had become followers of the one true God. Paul was now introducing them to the Christ event and showing them it was as significant for them as it was for the Jews.

       While there are Scriptural examples of Paul bringing the Gospel message to polytheistic pagan Gentiles, it appears that the Gentiles he initially preached too on the Sabbath in synagogues had already left paganism and were worshipping the one God.  It is also apparent that these Gentiles were in part or in whole following the Law of Moses, a matter that would become an issue as we will see in Acts 15.

The Church:

       We saw earlier that the word synagogue is the transliteration of a Greek word that literally means a gathering of people but also refers to the location where such gathering takes place.  We have seen Paul and Barnabas preaching in locations of such gatherings which are called synagogues.  We also see in the NT frequent use of the word “church” and its plural “churches” to refer to a gathering of Christians.  So what does “church” mean?  Does it, like the word synagogue, simply mean a gathering of people but can also mean the place where they gather?  It’s commonly believed “church” means “called out ones.”

       The word ekklesia (ek-klay-see'-ah) is the Greek word commonly rendered as “church” in the NT. In checking several Greek Lexicons, this Greek word has the meaning of assembly, gathering or meeting.  The translators of the Septuagint frequently use this Greek word to describe the congregation or assembly of Israel.  Here is one example.  

       Deuteronomy 31:30: And Moses recited the words of this song from beginning to end in the hearing of the whole assembly (Greek ekkiesia in Septuagint) of Israel:

       The word ekklesia is found 115 times in the NT.  The first time ekklesia is seen in the NT is Matthew 16:18 where Jesus tells Simon he is a petros (a small stone) but upon Christ the petra (a huge rock) Jesus would build the church (ekklesia).   Obviously, Jesus was not talking about a physical building or specific location as such but a gathering, assembly or congregation of people.  It is in this manner that ekklesia is often used in the NT.  Here are some examples.

       Acts 8:3: But Saul began to destroy the church (ekklesia). Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.

       Acts 9:31: Then the church (ekklesia) throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.

       Acts 12:1: It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church (ekklesia), intending to persecute them.

       As can be seen by the context of these passages, ekklesia is referring to Christians as a group or body of people and not to a specific location where they may have gathered to worship.

       It is evident, however, Christians did meet in specific locations and as time went on the locations where they met became known as churches much like the word synagogue came to refer to the location were gatherings of Jews took place.  Here are some examples.

       Acts 14:23: Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church (ekklesia) and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church (ekklesia) and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.

       Acts 15:41: He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches (ekklesia).

       Romans 16:4-5: They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches (ekklesia) of the Gentiles are grateful to them.  Greet also the church (ekklesia) that meets at their house.

       Romans 16:16: Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches (ekklesia) of Christ send greetings.

       Here context clearly shows ekklesia being used to identify specific gatherings of Christians in specific locations.  In some cases the location was simply somebody’s house.  In other cases it may have been a rented building. As already mentioned, the Greek ekklesia appears 115 times in the NT.  About half the time it is used to identify Christians in general and about half the time it is used to identify a specific group of Christians meeting together at a particular location. 

       As already mentioned, the Greek ekklesia has come to be understood as meaning “called out ones.”  However, this meaning is not inherent in the Greek word itself.  The Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich Greek lexicon which is considered the Gold Standard of Greek Lexicons, does not associate such meaning with ekklesia. Ekklesia is simply defined in this Lexicon as an assembly, gathering or meeting of people for any number of purposes and provides many examples from early Greek literature of it being used in this manner. It also provides a number of examples from the NT Scriptures of ekklesia being used in this manner but nowhere indicates it means “called out ones.”     

       So how did the Greek ekklesia come to be defined as “called out ones” and how did the moniker “called out ones” come to be defined as being called out by God from the world at large for special purpose which is how “called out ones” is usually defined.

       Ekklesia is derived from the Greek verb ek-kaleo which means “to call forth” This etymological meaning came to be associated with NT passages which speak of our being called by God.  Etymology is the study of the origin and history of words.

       However, as Greek scholars point out, ek-kaleo means nothing more than to call forth people to assemble which is what ekklesia means. So, as one scholar I read stated, there is no lexical reason to define ekklesia as meaning to be called out from a larger group.  It simple means an assembly of people that voluntarily get together for any variety purposes. The word has no specific religious connotations. 

       So while there certainly are Scriptural passages that speak of being called by God and being called out of this world to serve God, it is probably more accurate to say such calling results in our becoming part of the ekklesia and not that the calling itself is the ekklesia

       While ekklesia is rendered as church in most translations of the NT and church has become associated with buildings were Christians assemble, the building is not the church.  The church (ekklesia) is the assembly of Christians who come together in community of worship. When Paul spoke of churches in his various letters, he was referring to various groups of Christians in various locations and not to buildings where such groups met. Earlier we saw in Romans 16 Paul asking the Roman Christians to greet the church (ekklesia) that meets at the house of Priscilla and Aquila.  The church was the assembly of Christians who met at the house of Priscilla and Aquila.  Their house wasn’t the church.

Called Out:

       While the perspective of being called out of the world is found in Scripture, this perspective is sometimes misunderstood in that some think we should withdraw from interacting with the people of the world and become religious separatists. Jesus taught just the opposite.  Jesus taught we should come out of the sinfulness of the world while at the same time be involved in the world as beacons of righteousness and extensions of Christ.

       John 17:15-18:  My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.  As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.

       We, as disciples of Christ, are to be a light unto the world.  Jesus made this clear in the Sermon on the Mount when he spoke of being the light of the world, a city on a hill that cannot be hidden.  Some weeks ago when we did our hymn sing service we sang “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.”  That is our calling, to be a light of righteousness to the world.  Our calling is to be Christ with skin on.

       When Ross Jutsum was here at the end of October he sang a song he wrote back in 2000 entitled “We Are Your Body.”  The first verse and chorus is as follows:

       "Christ has no body on earth but yours.  No hands, no feet on this earth but yours. Yours are the eyes that His love runs through, with your lips He is showing compassion. We are Your hands, we are Your feet.  We are Your temple Lord.  We are Your body, we’re bought with a price, a living sacrifice, We are Your temple Lord.  We are Your body."

       Today we will once again partake of the bread and wine representing the broken body and shed blood of Jesus.  While the taking of the bread and wine commemorates the death of Christ and His facilitation or our salvation from the consequences of sin, it should also remind us that we have an obligation to be responsive to what Jesus taught and be that shinning light of righteousness in a world darkened by a massive amount of sin. 

       Romans 12: 1-2:  Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.

       Once a week we come together in a collective act of worship.  However, worship is a daily activity in that we worship God by living the way of life Jesus taught and what is revealed in the Scriptures in general.  We worship God by being living sacrifices in that we sacrifice time, effort and resources to serve those around us. We serve God by being the hands and feet of Christ as we go about our daily routine. 

       So as we partake of the bread and wine, let’s reflect not only on what this symbolizes as to our salvation but what it means as to our daily behavior before God the Father, our Lord Jesus Christ and our fellow man.

PART TWENTY-TWO