Acts 12:1-5: King Herod here is Herod Agrippa I, briefly ruled Samaria and Judea, along with the northeast section of the Transjordan (41-44). He did so at the pleasure of the Romans. This is the first report of a persecution of Christians by civil authorities rather than by religious leaders. Luke gives no reason for Herod’s opposition, but it was apparently suspicion of the potential political power and perception of the disciples of Jesus as a religiopolitical movement that spoke of the “kingdom of God” and Jesus as Messiah (Peoples new Testament Commentary). One result of this persecution is that James, the brother of John, is killed. Another is that Peter is arrested. “The church prayed fervently to God for him.” One can imagine why – the early church lived in a situation of arbitrary power, in which believers could be abused, arrested, and killed without hearing or trial (Peoples New Testament Commentary).
Acts 12:6-19: Peter’s imprisonment provides another opportunity for something remarkable to happen. On the night before he would have been executed, Peter is miraculously delivered from prison. The story reminds one of some of the resurrection stories, and they carry a similar theme – God’s power in the midst of seeming hopelessness, God’s vindication of the person and cause of Jesus. There is a wonderful ethereal and comic touch to Luke’s telling of this story. Peter thinks, at first, that this is happening in some dream dimension. His “rising” from imprisonment is first witnessed by a woman, a servant woman no less – who leaves Peter standing outside the gate. The main point of the story is God’s care for the emerging church, even in the face of imperial opposition. Just as crucifixion by the hand of the empire could not keep Jesus very life from continuing to touch others, so even now the empire cannot extinguish what began with Jesus and continues as his Spirit works in people’s lives. A secondary point in the story is a sort of passing of the torch of leadership in the Jerusalem church between Peter and James. Here the James is the brother of Jesus. He will become the central figure and chief leader of the church in Jerusalem. Sometimes the odds against the life of faith are formidable, yet we can remain free and faithful.
Acts 12:20-25: The Jesus movement continues in spite of opposition. In fact, some of the opposition will fade away. Herod’s pomp and pretense are but a fading glory as he dies. The motif of a horrible death for those who pretend to be the voice of God is a frequent one in ancient literature. Herod dies, “but the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents.” God’s word lasts. The values that are a part of God’s dream for the world – justice, peace, forgiveness, gentleness, love will live longer than the rule of tyrants.
Acts 13:1-3: The scene shifts from Jerusalem, where Saul and Barnabas and John Mark were, back to Antioch – and again we hear of Saul and Barnabas, as prophets and teachers. The Spirit asks that Saul and Barnabas were set aside for special work and this is symbolized by the laying on of hands – a ritual we continue to use in the church at confirmation and ordination. Fasting and praying are a part of the practice of this Christian community. Part of being a Christian is to engage in spiritual disciplines, spiritual practices.
Acts 13:4-12: Saul, who is also known as Paul (the name that is used from here on out – his Greco-Roman names as opposed to his Hebrew name of Saul), and Barnabas go on their way and do their work. Here the story is told of Sergius Paulus, a proconsul (an imperial official) and an intelligent person interested in hearing from Paul about “the faith.” He has with him a magician named Bar-Jesus or Elymus, and this man tries to keep Sergius Paulus away from the faith. He probably saw it as competition to his own spiritual counsel. Much like demons are addressed by Jesus, Paul rebukes Bar-Jesus, and he tells him that he will be blind for awhile (a nice symbolic touch – he is obviously blind already, blind spiritually). The power of the Spirit through Paul becomes a convincing point for the proconsul – he is astonished “at the teaching about the Lord.” The faith is spreading among Gentiles, and some powerful ones at that.
Acts 13:13-52: Another Antioch is the scene for the first “sermon” we get to hear from Paul. Paul and Barnabas go to the synagogue in this Antioch and are given the opportunity to speak. Paul takes full advantage of the chance. He begins by recounting familiar history – the Israelites in Egypt, kings Saul and David. From David’s ancestry comes Jesus – “a Savior.” This Jesus was rejected in Jerusalem and killed by Pilate. “But God raised him from the dead” and in this there is hope and promise. For Luke, who has in his gospel given us a fuller look at the life of Jesus, the good news about Jesus is focused on what God did through him – raised him from the dead. The essence of the gospel is that God acted in a special way in Jesus. It is not to say that God has acted only in Jesus, but to affirm that God has acted in Jesus. Here the focus is the resurrection, but one can extend the act of God in Jesus to his teaching and his healing. Forgiveness and freedom from sin are possible in a way that doesn’t seem possible through the law – that’s what Paul shares. And Paul believes this good news demands a decision. Here we are given yet another way of talking about the good news and response to it – “continue in the grace of God.”
Many good movies deserve a sequel, and there is one here, as well – though this sequel does not disappoint. The next week Paul and Barnabas draw an even bigger crowd, and this one a mixed crowd of Jews and Gentiles. The Jewish response this time is negative, in contrast with the week before where some chose to follow Paul and Barnabas and continue in the grace of God. The rejection of the message by many of the Jews gathered this time leads Paul to tell them that his work will now be directed toward the Gentiles. For Luke, this turn in the church has been coming about from chapter to chapter. The mission to the Gentiles is justified by reference to Isaiah (49:6, quoted in verse 47). The Gentiles receive the news gladly. “And as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers.” For Luke, God’s saving act is always God’s action, but it is also always human response. There is no full blown theory of predestination here, only a sense that when people respond to God that very ability to respond also seems a gift from God. Their success leads to trouble and Paul and Barnabas are run out of town. As they leave they leave behind a community of disciples who “were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.” When Paul and Barnabas arrived in this Antioch there was no Christian community, but by the time they left there was.
In our day, such stories can make us uneasy. We live in a time of religious pluralism and are sensitive to the imperialistic evangelism that has often characterized Christian history. Many of us have also been the recipients of really bad evangelism. We can wonder, then, what these stories may have to say to us. I think they encourage us to share our faith, knowing that there are some who are searching, who are in need of a deeper relationship with God and a deeper hope for their lives and for the world. All we need to do is share from our heart and our lives and be willing to let those who wish become a part of the Christian community. We can offer what we have without telling those of other faiths what they have is deficient. Frankly there are enough people with little faith or little practice, and enough people who may have found parts of their own faith life lacking that they are searching for something more, for us not to worry so much about those who are finding what they need in their faith life. If no one had ever shared their faith, we would not even be having this conversation. There would be no New Testament to read!