Monday, October 1, 2012

Parallel Stories

The fourteenth chapter of Acts begins as a continuation of the thirteenth chapter of Acts.  Rather than repeating what would come to be a fairly standard occurrence, Luke writes “The same thing happened in Iconium when Paul and Barnabas went into the Jewish synagogue” (14:1a).  That “same thing,” of necessity and due to the rapid movement of the narrative from one story to the next, must include the idea that “the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (13:52).  The Holy Spirit was being poured out in Iconium, as Paul “spoke in such a way that a large group of both Jews and Greeks believed” (14:1b).  With more and more people being embraced by the arms of covenant due to their believing, “they stayed there for a considerable time, speaking out courageously for the Lord” (14:3a). 

In association with this speaking out on His behalf, Luke insists that the Lord, “testified to the message of His grace” (14:3b), with that message and grace being the Gospel (Jesus is Lord) and the extension of the covenant implied by that message of God becoming King in and through and as His Christ (Messiah/King), and confirmed by the “granting of miraculous signs and wonders to be performed through their hands” (14:3c).  This is an obvious, conscientious adaptation of the words from Joel that had been on the lips of Peter at Pentecost, as recorded in the second chapter, which was “I will pour out My Spirit in those days and they will prophesy.  And I will perform wonders in the sky above and miraculous signs on the earth below” (2:18b-19a).  To this Peter had added talk of “Jesus the Nazarene, a man clearly attested to you by God with powerful deeds, wonders, and miraculous signs that God performed among you through Him” (2:22b). 

Later on in that same chapter, we find another point of allusion, in that “Reverential awe came over everyone, and many wonders and miraculous signs came about by the apostles” (2:43), not the least of which was “All who believed were together and held everything in common, and they began to sell their property and possessions and distributing the proceeds to everyone, as anyone had need” (2:44-45).  By this, they accomplished what Caesar could not (which is the subject of another study), while proclaiming the Gospel in their very actions, gaining “the good will of all the people” (2:47a), with the result that “the Lord was adding to their number every day those who were being saved” (2:47b).  This took place as more and more came to the confession of Jesus as Lord, thereby joining the covenant people of God based on their allegiance to and belief in that claim. 

What were the miraculous signs and wonders performed by Paul and Barnabas in Iconium?  Though there is no specific, immediate mention, and though even in chapter two Luke passes over this statement without making what we would think of as any immediate, substantiating claims, chapter three contains the record of a man that had been lame from birth being healed, at the command of Peter, in the name of Jesus.  This healing in Jesus’ name, as was the point of other healing stories that would have been a component of the oral (pre-written) Jesus tradition in Paul’s day, made the point that Jesus did indeed rule over all things.  We can imagine the same types of things are in mind when Luke will later write about the performance of signs and wonders in connection with speaking out courageously for the Lord Jesus (as did Peter and John).

Though they met with opposition, with this opposition eventually forcing the need to flee from Iconium to other cities, Paul was never dissuaded from his message, as Luke records that he “continued to proclaim the good news” (14:7).  Let us never fail to equate “good news” with “Gospel.”  Concurrently, let us never fail to equate “Gospel” with “announcements about the ruler of the world.”  We shall not fail in this because neither the audiences of Luke or Paul or any of the earliest believers in Jesus would have failed in this.

Not only do we imagine that Luke intends to draw out the similarities between the preaching of the Gospel at Pentecost and Paul’s preaching of the Gospel in other cities, which serves as an indication that Pentecost (the pouring out of the Holy Spirit so as to create belief in Jesus as the means by which God would place people in right standing with Him---make righteous, justify, save, etc…), in a way, was an event that was repeated whenever and wherever the Gospel was being preached, but the report of miraculous signs and wonders in chapter fourteen (though the setting has changed from Iconium to Lystra) is followed by an event that almost precisely parallels the mention of signs and wonders in chapter and two and the event that opens chapter three.  As we hear about “a man… lame from birth” (14:8) that is healed at the command of Paul, we consider the idea that the preaching of the Gospel message (the good news) has the same impact and effect in Gentile cities, and on and for Gentiles, as it did in Jerusalem, and on and for Jews. 

In an almost comical twist, the healing in chapter fourteen results in “the priest of the temple of Zeus” bringing “bulls and garlands to the city gates,” as “he and the crowds wanted to offer sacrifices to them” (14:13).  When a lame man is healed in chapter three, at the Temple in Jerusalem, “the priests and the commander of the Temple guard and the Sadducees came up to them, angry because they were teaching in Jesus the Resurrection of the dead.  So they seized them and put them in jail until the next day” (4:1b-3a).  Divergent responses indeed.  This, of course, followed the people “being filled with astonishment and amazement at what had happened” (3:10b), as the people were “completely astounded” and “ran together to” (3:11) Peter and John.  In the parallel story in Lystra, it just so happened that “when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they should in the Lycaonian language, ‘The gods have come down to us in human form!’” (14:11b)  Following the healing (though before the arrival of the priests from the Temple), Peter and John took the opportunity to preach Jesus, in whom “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our forefathers” (3:13a), had taken human form.  Paul, after the arrival of the priest from the temple, took the opportunity to proclaim the power of the same Creator God, who was the ultimate subject of the good news that he had been preaching.  Peter and John had to argue for their lives, were threatened, and eventually released.  Paul, preaching the same Jesus and the same God, with the same, subversive subtext, “scarcely persuaded the crowds not to offer sacrifice” (14:18b) to he and Barnabas.       

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