PAUL ENCOUNTERS TIMOTHY

Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. And a disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek, and he was well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted this man to go with him; and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those parts, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. Now while they were passing through the cities, they were delivering the decrees which had been decided upon by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem, for them to observe. So the churches were being strengthened in the faith, and were increasing in number daily (Acts16:1-5)

Another excerpt from Luke’s account of Paul’s missionary journeys. He is shortly to enter Europe but whilst in Lystra (in present-day Turkey) he encounters a Christian disciple named Timothy who Paul immediately took under his wing. No doubt to the surprise of many believers today, Paul had him circumcised. This was primarily so as not to cause offence to the local Jewish community – a case of Paul “becoming a Jew to the Jews in order to gain those who are still under the Law” (1Cor9:20).

 At this point one might do well to reflect upon the missionary journeys of Paul in the middle of the first century: their geographical extent and proliferation: “Thus were the churches being strengthened in the faith, and were increasing in number daily” (v5). Then consider such biblical personages as Timothy here mentioned.  He went on to live till around the late 90s AD and during that time had oversight of the churches of Ephesus. And later we shall encounter Titus (c. 13-107AD) and Philemon (timeline uncertain) to whom Paul also wrote epistles. Then imagine if you will the numerous and worthy men these biblical personages will have appointed to continue the ministry in accordance with Paul’s instructions. Finally, reflect on the second century Church and its writers and perceive that it is quite impossible that all known witnesses from that era could have been in error concerning the essentials of the Gospel. Irenaeus’ testimony considered in an earlier post affirmed the churches at that time had a remarkably uniform understanding of the essentials of the Faith.

And one does not have to rely on the testimony of Irenaeus, There are the annals of Church historian Eusebius (263-339AD) and the writings of Justyn Martyr (100-165AD), Clement of Alexandria (150-215AD) and Polycarp (69-156AD), all of which are easily accessible on internet (e.g.  www.newadvent.org/fathers  

I emphasize this point being aware that many of the assertions within these posts and the fuller picture set it out in The Little Book of Providence will appear obscure if not heretical to many believers today. An examination of the aforementioned writings will no doubt appear equally alien in terms of both ecclesiology and theology, especially from an Evangelical perspective – it is much more in tune with what I have been disclosing. Again, I urge the reader to think carefully through the implications of Paul’s missionary journeys, the churches that were established in the mid-late first century and the men appointed to oversee them. Then ask yourself this simple question, how can the second century Church as a whole have been in error concerning the nature of saving faith, natural law, the sacerdotal nature of the Church, the real presence and the millennial age? Their perspectives must have derived from the teaching of the Apostles, and men such as Timothy/Titus/Philemon and their immediate appointees (some of whom will have lived and ministered well into the second century). They cannot have been entirely reliant upon biblical exegesis, the New Testament canon having yet to be finalized. Whilst that can and should provide deeper insights it cannot directly contradict what the Apostles and their immediate successors had handed down to the faithful. Should it appear to do so it is simply being wrongly interpreted.   

In terms of the second century writings, one needs to study these for oneself – not rely on other people’s interpretations including my own. And it is equally important to notice what such writing NEVER say as much as what they do, aspects of which are perceived by modern Christians to be the essence of Christian salvation.

 Of course, there is such a thing as progressive revelation, but that cannot apply to the essential (i.e. soul-saving) aspects of faith and sacrament. However, progressive revelation can (and does) apply to many of the matters under consideration in these posts: most especially the scope of God’s saving work, being the mystery of His providential intentions towards His whole creation and why its munificence has been obscured for so long  (cf. Rev10:7-10).

THE JERUSALM COUNCIL

Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue. Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren. When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.” The apostles and the elders came together to look into this [c]matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that [d]in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. 10 Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” (Acts15:1-11)

Among other things, a consideration of the events known as the  Jerusalem Council reminds us of the thoroughly Jewish nature of the Church’s origins. Writing in his epistle to the Romans, Paul referred to Gentile Christians as wild and unnatural branches grafted into the good olive tree that was the Jewish nation (Rom11:24). These origins tend to be obscured by the hostility and unbelief of a substantial remnant of Jews who opposed the gospel and its propagation. However, the problem that the mid-first century Church also faced was that some Jews who had accepted the Christian faith insisted that it was necessary for believers including Gentiles to observe the essentials of the  Mosaic Law.

The passage I have selected deals with Peter’s response to the issue. He recounts to the Jerusalem Church how God had foreordained that the Gospel should be preached to Gentile hearers and that they should receive the Spirit and have their hearts cleansed by faith just as believing Jews did. As we have shown in previous posts, this had not been anticipated in Old Testament prophecy and was initially as much of a surprise to Peter as it was to his fellow Jews (Acts11:17-18)

The passage also has implications to modes of Church governance, Catholic and Orthodox Christians in particular  believing the Jerusalem Council to be a prototype of later “ecumenical councils” through which the Church should be governed. The resulting letter distributed to the Gentile believers in Antioch and Syria does indeed indicate that the apostles and elders believed themselves to have been directed by the Holy Spirit (v28) in their deliberations, the precise nature and implications of which I won’t elaborate upon in this post. The principal point I want to draw out is that this event is the contextual background to the Apostle Paul’s later teaching concerning Law and grace. In Galatians chapter two the apostle directly refers to the Jerusalem Council with his description of “false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage” (v4). This as we shall see later is the context of the apostle’s frequent assertion that justification is by faith rather than “works of the Law” – a reference which was misunderstood even in the apostle’s time (cf. 2Pet3:15-16), confounded, I believe, by Augustine and still more so by Luther – a matter  examined in chapter three of my book**.

** Free PDF HERE

PAUL’S SERMON TO THE IDOLATORS

Paul preaching at Lystra

We have come with Good News to make you turn from these empty idols to the living God who made sky and the earth and the sea and all that these hold. In the past He allowed all the nations to go their own way; but even then He did not leave you without evidence of Himself in the good things He does for you: He sends rain from Heaven and seasons of fruitfulness; He fills you with food and your hearts with merriment. (Acts14:15-17 New Jerusalem Bible)

After experiencing persecution at Iconium, Paul and Barnabas moved on to  Lystra  where Paul healed a man crippled in both feet.  Those who saw it were so impressed with the miracle that they declared Paul and Barnabas to be two of their gods, renaming them Mercury and Jupiter respectively. Unsurprisingly the two evangelists were greatly distressed by this, prompting Paul to make the speech featured above.. It is of interest because it hints at what might be described as Paul’s natural theology, and that becomes more evident in a few chapters time as we shall see. Here Paul is indicating that unlike God’s chosen people of the Old Testament whose inexcusable idolatry was not tolerated, God had permitted primitive people to “go their own way” in terms of their search for God, hoping that they would recognize the goodness of His nature through the natural provisions made for them. Far from despising humanity, even in its fallen state, God had been pleased to “fill their bellies with food and their  hearts with merriment” in order that they might come to discern the goodness of His nature. [This is Paul’s God and mine]. According to the apostle, God expected that primitive man might “grope after God” and find Him to an extent as we shall see in chapter 17 (vv26-28).

Now, thanks to the incarnation, ministry, sacrificial death, resurrection and glorification of the Word of God, such groping would no longer be required. For Christ, even in His earthly ministry (Jn14:9) had been the express image of God, and following His death and resurrection had provided the means and spiritual resources for fallen human beings to come to know and be reunited to God, His Son and Spirit – the phenomenon the Bible refers to as “αἰώνιος  ζωὴ”, usually translated from the Greek  as “eternal life” (Jn17:3)**,As the Biblehub excerpt I have quoted below affirms the full sense of the meaning (as being a quality relating to an age) tends to be obscured in the translation. This Good News was no longer reserved for Jews and God-fearing Gentiles, it was  provided to out and out pagans such as Paul was addressing. And as considered in the last post,  “as many as were appointed to eternal life”  came to believe.

**Biblehub.com’s analysis of  αἰώνιος (aionios)in the context of “eternal life”

“Cognate: 166 aiṓnios (an adjective, derived from 165 /aiṓn (“an age, having a particular character and quality“) – properly, “age-like” (“like-an-age“), i.e. an “age-characteristic” (the quality describing a particular age); (figuratively) the unique quality (reality) of God’s life at work in the believer, i.e. as the Lord manifests His self-existent life (as it is in His sinless abode of heaven). “Eternal (166 /aiṓnios) life operates simultaneously outside of time, inside of time, and beyond time – i.e. what gives time its everlasting meaning for the believer through faith, yet is also time-independent”

 [Excerpt from Biblehub “HELPS: word studies for G166 – my highlighting] 

PAUL’S SERMON AT ANTIOCH

38 Let it be known to you, brethren, that through (Jesus) is preached to you the forgiveness of sins; 39 and by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses40 Beware therefore, lest what has been spoken in the prophets come upon you: 41 ‘Behold, you despisers, Marvel and perish! For I work a work in your days, a work which you will by no means believe though one were to declare it to you.’ ” 42 So when the Jews went out of the synagogue, the Gentiles begged that these words might be preached to them the next Sabbath. 43 Now when the congregation had broken up, many of the Jews and devout proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God. 44 On the next Sabbath almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God. 45 But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy; and contradicting and blaspheming, they opposed the things spoken by Paul. 46 Then Paul and Barnabas grew bold and said, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you (Jews) first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles47 For so the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have set you as a light to the Gentiles, that you should be for salvation to the ends of the earth.’ ” 48 Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed. (Acts13:38-48)

I am focusing on the conclusion of Paul’s sermon in the synagogue at Antioch. One reason it is notable is that it is one of the few references to justification in the evangelistic preaching of the New Testament. Those who believe in Jesus, said Paul can be “justified from that from which one could not be justified through the Law of Moses”. As explained in an earlier post, there was provision in the Law of Moses through animal sacrifice for forgiveness of sins committed in ignorance (cf. Num15:26-28), but not for (the many more) sins committed willfully. This message greatly pleased Paul’s Gentile listeners but it should be noted that a good number of Jews and proselytes also followed Paul and Barnabus  in response to this preaching (v43). Paul urged them to “continue in the grace of God”. That is as opposed to doing what he later had to chastise some within the Galatian Church for doing. They, he said had “fallen from grace” by attempting to be justified by the Law (Gal5:4). He explains elsewhere in his pastoral epistle  that by this he meant they had “turned again to the weak and beggarly elements (of the Torah), desiring again to be in bondage, observing days and months and seasons and years (Gal4:9-10)“. This is the true context of Paul’s often misunderstood law/grace dichotomy and will be examined in more detail when we come to his epistles.

Whist some of his Jewish hearers were positive to Paul’s message others within the synagogue (probably including most of its leaders) were hostile. He warned them as follows: “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you (Jews) first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles” (v46).  As I explain in my book** and as Paul affirms in Romans chapter 11, it was not simply a matter of order or protocol that the Gospel be preached to the Jews first, it was because they were the fore-ordained children of God’s Kingdom (Mt8:12). They were about to be usurped as such in view of their unbelief – much to the benefit and spiritual prosperity of the Gentile world (Rom11:12).  Yet as verse 48 indicates it was never God’s intention that all in the current age should come to gospel salvation. Rather, “as many as were appointed to eternal life” were enabled by the Spirit of God to receive Christ (cf. Jn6:44). Once the Church as God’s inaugurated kingdom on earth is understood within the context of broader providence, the doctrine of predestination insisted upon in particular by Paul will not be a problem or detract from the Creator’s loving providential plans for humanity.

** Free PDF HERE

ELYMAS – CHILD OF THE DEVIL

Saul rebukes Elymas in front of Sergius Paulus

When (Saul and Barnabus) had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they found a magician, a Jewish false prophet whose name was Bar-Jesus, who was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence. This man summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the magician (for so his name is translated) was opposing them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. But Saul, who was also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, fixed his gaze on him, and said, “You who are full of all deceit and fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease to make crooked the straight ways of the Lord? 11 Now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and not see the sun for a time.” And immediately a mist and a darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking those who would lead him by the hand. 12 Then the proconsul believed when he saw what had happened, being amazed at the teaching of the Lord. (Acts13:6-12)

Another encounter with a Gentile would-be convert, this time involving Paul and his associates, Mark and Barnabus. The Gentile in question was Sergius Paulus, pro-consul of Cyprus under Emperor Claudius. He is described in our text as “a man of intelligence” (v7) – wise enough indeed to want hear more of the Word of God, for which reason he summoned Paul and his associates. It is to be observed that many in the Bible who desire to learn of the Gospel are described as wise or God-fearing. Such was the rich young ruler considered in an earlier post who came to Jesus seeking to “inherit eternal life”. He was undoubtedly God-fearing, law abiding and loved by Christ (Mk10:21) but in his case he was unwilling to become a disciple in view of the wealthy lifestyle he was required to leave behind. That consideration might well have applied to pro-Consul Sergius but in his case he made the better choice (v12). The main point being made in this post is that the gospel is not directed to those who are wicked and depraved but to those who already fear God or come to do so when the Word is preached. As Paul himself declared when delivering his sermon later in this chapter (next post):

Men and brethren, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear Godto you the word of this salvation has been sent (Acts13:26NKJV)

This is hardly the approach to evangelism I was brought up to believe in or apply as an Evangelical minister but it is the reality of Scripture in terms of Jesus’ encounters with His would-be disciples in the Gospels and that of the apostles in Acts.  Likewise, those who wholeheartedly reject the Gospel and its Hero such as certain religious leaders that Jesus encountered and the likes of Elymas in our passage, these were sometimes described by Jesus and here by Paul as “children of the devil”.  Elymas was desperate to prevent the pro-consul’s conversions and Paul further describes him as one who is “full of all deceit and fraud, an enemy of all righteousness, making crooked the straight ways of the Lord” (v10) 

This touches upon one of many mysteries being explored in The Little Book of Providence** (chapter six), namely that the term “children of the devil” is not merely a descriptor for a particularly heinous  sinner but is a distinct category of individual of whom the archetype was Adam’s firstborn son Cain. This idea is more explicitly developed in the epistles of John, which God willing we will come to in due course.

**Free PDF available HERE

ACTS 10 PETER’S ENLIGHTENMENT

The next day, as they went on their journey and drew near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. 10 Then he became very hungry and wanted to eat; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance 11 and saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. 13 And a voice came to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean.” 15 And a voice spoke to him again the second time, “What God has declared to be clean you must not call common.” 16 This was done three times. And the object was taken up into heaven again. (Acts10:9-16)

As most commentators recognize Peter’s vision was not really about food and what could be eaten, but about people and who could now be fitted for glory. The Gentiles were no longer to be regarded as common or unclean because God had declared them to be otherwise. But why should that be since according to the Torah, being the divine decrees for His chosen people, many of the practices of other nations were to be regarded as unclean, being opposed to God’s will for the people with whom He wished closely to associate? Well something radical had happened: Messiah had been sacrificed on the Cross, not just as an offering for sin but “to cancel out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to (the Gentiles); He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Col2:14)

As a result, the likes of God -fearing Gentiles such as Cornelius and his household were now eligible to be members of the messianic community. This was a mystery, revealed more clearly through Paul (Eph3/Rom11), that even Peter was not clear about even though he and his immediate associates had been three years at Jesus’ side. Such men were not stupid: if Jesus had made these matters clear to them concerning God’s plans for the Gentile nations, such a vision would not have been needed. Jesus had merely hinted at such a possibility in certain parables whilst the Old Testament was yet more adamant that only Jews and the relatively few proselytes who converted to their faith could be “the children of the Kingdom”. Others could potentially be enlightened and forgiven in the name of Jesus if they repented and acknowledged Him as Lord and Saviour. But it was certainly not envisaged that they would  be filled with the Holy Spirit or obtain an eternal quality of life in preparation for future glory as Christ’s corporate partner through eternity. The Messiah was foretold to be “ a Light to bring revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of God’s people Israel (Lk2:32). Or as Paul later expressed it, siting and slightly subverting some Old Testament prophecy::

“Jesus Christ has become a Servant to the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made to the fathers, and also that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy, as it is written:

“For this reason I will confess to You among the Gentiles,
And sing to Your name.”

10 And again he says:

“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people!”

11 And again:

“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles!
Laud Him, all you peoples!”

12 And again, Isaiah says:

“There shall be a root of Jesse;
And He who shall rise to reign over the Gentiles,
In Him the Gentiles shall hope.” (Rom15:8-12)

 The Gentiles were expected to rejoice with God’s people not become His people (v10). As for Peter, he states more explicitly in the next chapter (11:17) that up to this point he had not grasped that the Gentiles could receive “the same spiritual gift” as the Jews when they came to believe in Christ, or in Paul’s language that they would “obtain an inheritance amongst those who are to be sanctified” (Acts20:32)

The newly enlightened apostle concluded:

“In truth I now perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him. (Acts10:34-35)

THE CONVERSION OF CORNELIUS

Cornelius the centurion

Now there was a man at Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian cohort, a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God continually. About the ninth hour of the day he clearly saw in a vision an angel of God who had just come in and said to him, “Cornelius!” And fixing his gaze on him and being much alarmed, he said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Now dispatch some men to Joppa and send for a man named Simon, who is also called Peter; he is staying with a tanner named Simon, whose house is by the sea.” When the angel who was speaking to him had left, he summoned two of his [e]servants and a devout soldier of those who were his personal attendants, and after he had explained everything to them, he sent them to Joppa (Acts10:1-8)

Cornelius is perhaps the prime example in the New Testament of those who are neither Jew nor Christian yet are God-fearing and upright. His charitable works and prayers were noted by God (v4) who, contrary to what I believed for many years delights in and rewards those who seek Him and exercise compassion towards others. That applies whether or not they know Christ as Lord and Saviour, which Cornelius assuredly did not at that stage. Nor is this “prevenient grace”, it is effectual common grace: he and his household were God-fearing and morally upright by nature. What such people are doing, particularly when they exercise compassion is serving Christ, though they don’t currently know as much. In due time they shall be informed that in as much as they showed kindness to the least of their fellow human beings, they did so to Christ as Son of Man (Mt25:40). Cornelius was unsaved and religiously untaught – he worshipped Peter the moment he met him (vv25,26). For Cornelius to be a true disciple and become “conformed to the image of God’s Son” (Rom8:29) so that He might reign with Him in the ages to come, something more was required. He needed to be baptized and receive the Holy Spirit, which duly occurred. As we shall see in the next post that was somewhat to the Apostle Peter’s surprise.     

THE MIRACULOUS HEALINGS OF PETER

Peter restores life to Tabitha

36 Now in Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (which translated in Greek is called Dorcas); this woman was abounding with deeds of kindness and charity which she continually did. 37 And it happened at that time that she fell sick and died; and when they had washed her body, they laid it in an upper room. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, having heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him, imploring him, “Do not delay in coming to us.” 39 So Peter arose and went with them. When he arrived, they brought him into the upper room; and all the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing all the tunics and garments that Dorcas used to make while she was with them. 40 But Peter sent them all out and knelt down and prayed, and turning to the body, he said, “Tabitha, arise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter, she sat up. 41 And he gave her his hand and raised her up; and calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive. 42 It became known all over Joppa, and many believed in the Lord43 And Peter stayed many days in Joppa with a tanner named Simon (Acts9:36-43)

In terms of Peter’s ministry in particular, an important aspect was the miraculous healings and as in the case of the saintly Tabitha, occasional resurrections. Actions speak louder than words and it resulted in many “believing in the Lord” (v42). That was in Joppa which since the time of Solomon was the main port of Jerusalem. The question has often been posed as to why such miraculous activity largely subsided after the death of the apostles. As is evident in this passage such events result in many being added to the local church, ensuring that a fledgling community of believers becomes an established witness in the area. However, in the Gospel of John Jesus had indicated that these more extraordinary gifts were not for the apostles alone but for all believers, and by implication, all generations:

  Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father (Jn14:12NASB).

As will hopefully become clearer later in Acts in the preaching of Paul, the miraculous activity was a particular witness to the Jews concerning the One they had had crucified. Peter and all the apostles always made it clear that what they were doing was not through their own authority or power but in the name and authority of the Messiah so many of them had rejected. And as I explained in an earlier post it was not the Jews’ role in the crucifixion per se but their rejection of the post-Ascension apostolic witness concerning it that resulted in their being usurped as sole inheritors of the Kingdom (cf. Acts13:46). This more than any other factor explains the temporary nature of such miraculous activity, not to mention the many other mysteries pertaining to the course of the history of the current age and the subversion of some earlier biblical prophecies concerning it (e.g. Is2:3-4; Zech8:23; Mt10:23; cf. Acts1:6-7; Eph3:9) 

THE CONVERSION OF PAUL

Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” (Acts9:1-6)

I am in the process of examining the sermons and conversions of Acts – but this is no ordinary conversion, or indeed sermon, coming as it did from the Lord of Glory. And it was not addressed to a penitent but to a raging tyrant hell-bent on destroying His fledgling Church. Saul of Tarsus was a Jewish zealot who was not in the pursuit of evil per se but believed He was fulfilling the divine will by bringing a dangerous new movement to task. It was a movement referred to as “the Way” that he feared would undermine the Jewish Temple, Torah and Tradition. Yet Saul had recently witnessed and approved of the martyr of Stephen who had spoken historical Truth concerning the patriarchs with which Saul would have been acquainted. Deacon Stephen had been filled with the Holy Spirit such that his face appeared as an angel (6:15). Yet, regrettably, religious bigots are often unable to discern the Truth even when the Holy Spirit is at work in its presentation. It is no wonder Saul who became Paul described himself as the chief of sinners, albeit that was in the context of his persecution of the early church (1Tim1:13-15); it was not an assessment of his life as a Christian as some try to make out for the their own theological ends (cf. 2Cor1:12). But as the aforementioned reference from Timothy affirms, God had had mercy on the young man from Tarsus because he had done what he had done in the ignorance of unbelief.

In terms of Paul’s conversion, the circumstances may have been extraordinary but resulted as ever in prayerful reflection (Acts9:11), baptism (v18), reception of the Holy Spirit (v17) and an affirmation that Jesus Christ was the Son of God (v20). His previous misguided zeal would now be put to good use by Christ “as My chosen vessel to bear My name before the Gentiles, kings as well as the sons of Israel” (v15). The unexpected thirteenth apostle, pivotal to the unfolding of the mystery of God’s munificent providential purposes* had been launched.

*Set out in “The Little Book of Providence” – free PDF HERE

THE CONVERSION OF ETHIOPIAN EUNOCH

25 So, when they had solemnly testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they started back to Jerusalem, and were preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans. 26 But an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip saying, “Get up and go south to the road that descends from Jerusalem to Gaza.” ([h]This is a desert road.) 27 So he got up and went; and there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure; and he had come to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and he was returning and sitting in his [i]chariot, and was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this [j]chariot.” 30 Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 Now the passage of Scripture which he was reading was this:

“He was led as a sheep to slaughter;
And as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
So He does not open His mouth.
33 “In humiliation His judgment was taken away;
Who will [
k]relate His [l]generation?
For His life is removed from the earth.”

34 The eunuch answered Philip and said, “Please tell me, of whom does the prophet say this? Of himself or of someone else?” 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him. 36 As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch *said, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?” 37 []And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”] 38 And he ordered the [n]chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch, and he baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; and the eunuch no longer saw him, but went on his way rejoicing (Acts8:25-39). 

A part of the reason for my going through these sermons and exchanges in Acts is to demonstrate that the apostles’ audience and the first converts to the Christian faith were either Jewish, Samaritan (being effectively a sect of Jews who also worshipped YHWE and observed the Law of Moses) or as in the case of the Ethiopian eunuch, a Jewish proselyte. That is evidenced from the fact that he had been on pilgrimage to the Jewish temple and was reading the Old Testament. It is to affirm a major thesis within the Little Book of Providence (not to mention Paul’s 11th chapter to the Romans) that what we know of as Christian salvation was not envisaged for the Gentile nations in the current age but resulted from the rejection of the Jewish nation as sole inheritors of the Kingdom. My Book considers the associated providential and dispensational (millennial) implications of this phenomenon. These have largely been eluded because such cannot currently  be reconciled with some of the narrow, dualistic  Augustinian derived theological assumptions the Church has relied upon for so long,

The other reason for this process is to demonstrate what the very earliest (and purest) evangelism looked like in terms of what potential converts to the Faith were required to do or believe. This narrative serves that purpose well in which it is to be observed that the Ethiopian having  been instructed by Philip concerning Jesus (in this case using only data available from the Old Testament – so forget the counter-intuitive intricacies of Pauline justification and the like), he came across water and requested to be baptized. The subsequent dialogue provides all we need to know: “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch, and he baptized him”. Truly, the unnamed Ethiopian was now a Christian. If he were still alive in a few decades time he would have the opportunity to further inform and deepen his faith through the teaching of the apostles in their pastoral letters to the churches. But in the meantime he possessed sufficient knowledge to believe in his heart that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and receive baptism for the remission of his sins, the Spirit also being given to those who obey God. That, as Acts should affirm to all readers, pertains to the essentials of what makes and defines the Christian.   

Exploring the mystery of divine providence