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The New Testament


BOOKS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, continued

ACTS OF THE APOSTLES

OVERVIEW

Acts of the Apostles was written by the author of the Gospel of Luke and forms with Luke a two-part work. Like Luke, Acts is addressed to an otherwise unknown person called Theophilus (1:1). It was probably written soon after Luke, perhaps in the 80s of the first century. As Luke tells the story of the proclamation of the "good news" of salvation by Jesus during his earthly career, beginning in Galilee and culminating in Jerusalem, Acts tells the story of the spread of the "good news" from Jerusalem to other parts of the ancient Mediterranean world, culminating in Rome.

Acts is the first history of the Christian church, covering the period from about A.D. 30 to about 60. As you read about particular individuals such as Peter, Stephen, Philip, and especially Paul, don't lose sight of the fact that Acts is the story of the growth of a community. The central theme of the book is the activity of the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus begins his ministry by declaring "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me" (Luke 4:18). In Acts, the apostles begin their ministry when the Spirit descends upon them. As others become Christians, they too receive the Spirit.

Because the principal way the early church won converts was by preaching, speeches make up a large part of Acts. This also reflects the practice of ancient Greek and Roman historians of presenting the key ideas of leading figures in the form of speeches. These speeches, normally composed by the historian, often include material going back to the people to whom they're attributed, since the purpose is to reflect those people's views faithfully.

A fascinating feature of Acts is the broad, lively picture of first-century life that it paints. The action shifts from Roman law courts to Jewish synagogues, from market places to jails, from meeting places of the early Christians to Mediterranean trading vessels. The characters include Christian preachers, Jewish priests, high Roman officials, magicians, idol makers, and all sorts of ordinary working people.

BEGINNINGS OF THE CHURCH IN JERUSALEM (1:1-5:42)

After Jesus is taken up into heaven, the apostles gather in prayer in Jerusalem, together with the women who had followed Jesus from Galilee, and with Jesus' mother and brothers. Matthias is chosen by lot to fill the place vacated by Judas Iscariot. On the day of Pentecost (Hebrew Shavuot, a festival fifty days after Passover that originally celebrated the wheat harvest and later commemorated the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai), the apostles receive the Holy Spirit. They hear "a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind," see "cloven tongues like as of fire" resting on each of them, and are "all filled with the Holy Ghost" (2:2-4). Jerusalem is filled with Jews from many lands, who have come for the festival. When the apostles speak, each pilgrim hears his own language- the miracle of Pentecost.

But some, who don't participate in the miracle, think the apostles are drunk. Peter explains to them that the Holy Spirit has descended on the apostles in fulfillment of a prophecy (Joel 2:28-32). He preaches, "Jesus of Nazareth,... ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain.... This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses.... let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.... Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost" (2:22, 23, 32, 36, 38). Large numbers of people believe and are baptized.

NOTE: THE KERYGMA
The chief work of the apostles in Acts is the proclamation of salvation from God in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the invitation to accept that salvation in baptism and the reception of the Holy Spirit. This proclamation, or preaching, is known by the Greek word kerygma. You'll find it repeated again and again in the speeches of Acts. Most scholars agree that these speeches represent the original preaching of the Christian community, going back to a time before the Gospels were written. The classical expression of the kerygma is in this first speech of Peter.

The members of the fledgling church join together in prayer, and in the celebration of the Eucharist ("breaking of bread," 2:42). They have all possessions in common, selling their belongings and distributing to each according to his need (2:44-45). When Ananias and Saphira sell their land, but try to deceive the apostles by pretending that their partial donation is the whole payment they received, they're miraculously struck dead in punishment.

The preaching by Peter and the other apostles brings them into conflict with the Jewish authorities. Twice they're arrested and released. It's interesting that in Acts the Jewish leaders who are depicted as most hostile to Christian preaching are the Sadducees. The Pharisees, who receive many harsh words from Jesus in the Gospels, are here shown in a more favorable light. The outstanding Pharisee leader Gamaliel urges the Jewish council to tolerate the Christians: "let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it" (5:38-39).

GROWTH OF THE CHURCH IN PALESTINE; CONVERSION OF PAUL (6:1-12:24)

The expansion of the Christian community results in tension between two groups within it, the "Grecians" (usually called Hellenists) and the "Hebrews." Most scholars think these were two groups of Jewish Christians, the Hellenists those whose ordinary language was Greek and the Hebrews those whose ordinary language was Aramaic. The Hellenists believe that their widows don't receive a fair share in the distribution of common goods. To deal with such community problems- and so that the apostles won't have to "leave the word of God, and serve tables" (6:2)- seven men are chosen by the congregation. These are the first seven deacons. All have Greek names.

Stephen, one of the seven, becomes known for his preaching and miracles. When he's questioned by the high priest and the council, Stephen delivers a long summary of Old Testament history and stresses the resistance of the people to God's plan. He concludes "Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which showed before of the coming of the Just One [Jesus]; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it" (7:52-53). Finally, he has a vision of the glory of God, and of Jesus at God's right hand. His listeners hustle him out of town and stone him to death. Stephen is considered the first Christian martyr.

A persecution of Christians breaks out in Jerusalem, and everybody except the apostles leaves for other parts of Judea and Samaria. Notable among those who leave is the deacon Philip, who converts and baptizes many in Samaria. One of the Samaritan converts is a magician named Simon. Peter and John go to Samaria and lay hands on the converts, so that they receive the Holy Spirit. When Simon offers them money, hoping to buy the power of conferring the Spirit, Peter denounces him.

NOTE: Simon's attempt to buy the power of laying-on of hands to confer the Holy Spirit has given a word to the language. "Simony" means giving Acts of the Apostles money in exchange for holy things, and in particular for church offices.

Afterwards, on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, Philip meets an Ethiopian eunuch, who is treasurer to the Ethiopian queen (Candace is thought to be a title of the queen or queen mother of the ancient state of Meroe on the Nile in what is now Sudan). The Ethiopian is studying a "suffering servant" passage from Isaiah 53:7-8, and is perplexed. Philip explains to him that the passage refers to Jesus. The eunuch declares "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God" (8:37) and is baptized.

A young man named Saul, who looked after the coats of the people who stoned Stephen (7:58, 22:20), is one of the leaders of the persecution in Jerusalem (8:3). After the dispersal of the Christians, he sets out for Damascus to arrest Christians there. On the way, he sees a bright light, falls to the ground, and hears the voice of Jesus saying "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" (9:4). He is led, blind, to Damascus. There his sight is restored by a Christian called Ananias. He is baptized, and begins preaching that Jesus is the Son of God. The Jews of Damascus, feeling betrayed, plot against him, but he escapes.

NOTE: CONVERSION OF PAUL
Acts describes the conversion of Saul (Paul) as a sudden event. Some readers consider the suddenness to be as much a sign of the miraculous as the light, the voice, and the temporary blindness. Others see in Saul's activity as a persecutor an indication that this deeply religious young man had already become obsessed with Christianity, and may have been struggling against his fascination for the new faith.

Meanwhile, Peter comes to grips with the problem (already raised by Philip's baptism of the Ethiopian) of the reception of Gentiles into the Christian fold, and the allied problem of the authority of the Jewish law. At the coastal city of Joppa he has a vision of all kinds of animals and birds and hears a voice saying "kill, and eat." Peter says "I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean"- in other words, foods forbidden by the law- but the voice says "What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common" (10:13-15). He is called to see Cornelius, a Roman centurion stationed at Caesarea. Thanks to his vision, he goes even though Jews aren't supposed to associate with "unclean" Gentiles. He preaches a typical kerygmatic speech to Cornelius and his household, and the Holy Spirit comes upon his listeners. Peter has them baptized.

When Peter returns to Jerusalem, Jewish Christians there criticize him for his action. He explains that the Holy Spirit intervened, and his critics are appeased, concluding "Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life" (11:18).

Persecution intensifies in Jerusalem. James the apostle, the brother of John, is put to death on orders from King Herod Agrippa I (12:2). Peter is arrested, but released from prison by an angel. He goes to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark. The first Christians usually worshiped in private homes, often the homes of women. At the same time, Barnabas preaches at Antioch with Paul, and Antioch becomes a major Christian center. Indeed, "the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch" (11:26).

PAUL'S FIRST JOURNEY; THE COUNCIL OF JERUSALEM (12:25-15:35)

Barnabas and Paul go on a missionary journey from Antioch to Cyprus and Asia Minor (now Turkey). At the synagogue in Antioch in Pisidia (not Antioch, the capital of Syria), Paul teaches "that the promise which was made unto the fathers, God hath fulfilled... unto us their children, in that he hath raised up Jesus... through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses" (13:32-33, 38-39). Many Jews are converted. When, a week later, many Gentiles are converted, the Jews of Pisidian Antioch resent the sharing of Christianity with Gentiles, and Paul and Barnabas are driven out of town.

They go on to preach in other towns, and when they return to Antioch in Syria they report to the Christians there about their experiences, notably that God "had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles" (14:27). However, "certain men which came down from Judea" teach that "Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved" (15:1). In hopes of resolving this controversy, Paul and Barnabas go to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles.

The meeting, often called the Council of Jerusalem, probably took place about A.D. 49 or 50. Peter reports his preaching to Gentiles, and their reception of the Holy Spirit (the episode of Cornelius and his household of 10:34-48). Then Paul and Barnabas tell about their work among the Gentiles in Asia Minor. Finally James, the brother of Jesus, leader of the Jerusalem church, proposes a compromise, which is adopted. The decision of the council, sent to the Gentile Christians of Antioch, is: "we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you... saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law.... [but] it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication" (15:24, 28-29).

NOTE: DECISION OF THE COUNCIL OF JERUSALEM
The crucial element of the decision is the agreement that Gentile Christians need not follow all the rules of Jewish law, notably circumcision. The retention of some Jewish food laws, such as the prohibition of blood (Leviticus 17:12), apparently intended to diminish friction between Jewish and Gentile Christians, seems rather incongruous. Paul's account of the meeting (Galatians 2:1-10) stresses that circumcision wasn't required of Gentiles; that the mission to the Gentiles was entrusted to himself and the mission to the Jews to Peter, James, and John; and that he and Barnabas promised to send help to the poor in Jerusalem. If the events recorded in Galatians 2:11-16 took place after the council, it evidently didn't produce as much harmony as Acts suggests. Galatians 2:12 also seems to show that James was the leader of the "circumcision" party. Paul apparently regarded the Jerusalem decisions about food as matters of expediency, rather than of moral obligation (Romans 14:2-3; 1 Corinthians 10:23-32).

PAUL'S SECOND JOURNEY (15:36-18:21)

Paul again travels through Asia Minor, visiting several areas where he had preached before. He's accompanied this time by Silas. At Lystra, he meets a Christian named Timothy, who joins his party. Timothy's father is a Gentile, his mother a Jew. Paul circumcises Timothy. Is this inconsistent? Paul has just won his case against the party that demands circumcision. But that controversy dealt with the circumcision of Gentiles. Since Timothy is the son of a Jewish woman, he's considered Jewish, and not exempt from circumcision under the agreement reached at Jerusalem. Paul has a vision, calling him to cross over to Europe to Macedonia (now northern Greece)- and, the author says, "immediately we endeavoured to go into Macedonia" (16:10).

NOTE: THE "WE" PASSAGES
In Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; and 27:1-28:16 the author writes in the first person plural, rather than the third person. Some scholars think these "we" passages indicate that the author of Luke-Acts was a companion of Paul (as was Luke, traditionally identified as the author). Others think the author used as a source a travel record by one of Paul's companions, and here transcribed original wording. Still others think that the first person forms are a literary device intended to give immediacy to the account.

Paul preaches in a number of towns in Macedonia. In most places he follows his usual procedure of preaching chiefly to Jewish congregations and to Gentiles already sympathetic to Judaism. At Philippi he and Silas are arrested, and convert their jailer. They are released when they reveal that they're Roman citizens. In the first century, Roman citizenship was still an unusual privilege for most inhabitants of the Roman Empire outside Italy.

In Athens, Paul preaches on the Areopagus, or hill of Mars. Here, addressing a pagan audience, Paul presents his message in an unusual way. In Acts most preaching stresses Old Testament history and prophecy- both meaningless to pagan Greeks. Instead, Paul takes his theme from an altar he has seen in Athens dedicated "to the Unknown God" (17:23). He says that he will explain to the Athenians the God whom they have worshiped without knowing. "God," he declares, "that made the world and all things therein... dwelleth not in temples made with hands... he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; and hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth... that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: For in him we live, and move, and have our being" (17:24-28). He quotes Aratus, a pagan poet of the third century B.C.: "For we are also his offspring" (17:28). All goes well until Paul mentions the resurrection of Jesus, but this idea is so alien to pagan Greek thought that some mock him, though others are converted.

Paul lives for nearly two years in Corinth, first with a Jewish couple named Aquila and Priscilla, and later with a Gentile called Justus. As a result of his preaching, the Jewish community of Corinth take Paul to the court of Gallio, the Roman governor of Achaia, or Greece. Gallio dismisses the charges on the grounds that they deal with religious controversies within the Jewish community. After a time, Paul returns to Antioch in Syria.

PAUL'S THIRD JOURNEY (18:23-21:16)

Paul crosses Asia Minor again, this time stopping at Ephesus. The Alexandrian Jew Apollos, "instructed in the way of the Lord"- Christianity- but "knowing only the baptism of John" the Baptist (18:25), has been working there. Aquila and Priscilla have explained "the way" to him better, and he has gone to Greece. Paul asks some believers at Ephesus (followers of Apollos?) whether they've received the Holy Ghost, and they say "We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost" (19:2). They've only received "the baptism of repentance" (19:4) of John. Paul baptizes them in Jesus' name and lays hands on them, and they receive the Spirit.

At Ephesus, a major center of paganism, the Christian converts burn their books on the magical arts. The value of the books destroyed amounts to 50,000 pieces of silver (19:19). The powerhouse of pagan Ephesus was the temple of Diana, or Artemis, one of the traditional seven wonders of the world, and there was evidently a brisk trade in silver shrines for Diana. The silversmith Demetrius warns his fellow craftsmen that "Paul hath persuaded and turned away much people, saying that they be no gods, which are made with hands" (19:26). The silversmiths are afraid that Paul's work will put both them and their goddess out of business. Shouting "Great is Diana of the Ephesians" (19:28), they riot against Paul, and soon afterwards he leaves the city.

After a short visit to Macedonia and Greece, Paul passes through Asia Minor again on his way east. A curious episode takes place at Troas. We think of Paul as a spellbinding orator, but even the best speaker sometimes fails to keep the attention of everyone in his audience. At Troas, during Paul's speech, a young man called Eutychus falls asleep and is killed when he slips from his perch in a third-story window. Paul brings him back to life.

At Miletus Paul meets with the elders of the Christian church at Ephesus. He summarizes his ministry in Asia Minor, "testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ" (20:21). Interestingly, he points out that he hasn't accepted money for himself, but supported himself by his own labor (20:33-34); he was a tentmaker by trade (18:3). After praying with them, he sails for Palestine.

PAUL'S IMPRISONMENT AND JOURNEY TO ROME (21:17-28:31)

James tells Paul that there are thousands of Jewish Christians who think he's been teaching Jews as well as Gentiles not to observe the Jewish law, and advises him to take part in a ceremony in the Temple to show them they're wrong. When Paul does this, however, a riot against him breaks out in the Temple. Roman soldiers intervene and arrest Paul. Paul addresses the crowd, explaining that he was raised as a religious Jew, and studied "at the feet of Gamaliel" (22:3; see 5:34-39). Paul tells how he had once persecuted the Christians, and how he had been converted. But when he says that Jesus told him in a vision "I will send thee... unto the Gentiles" (22:21), the disturbance resumes. A Roman officer orders Paul scourged, but is stopped when he discovers that Paul is a Roman citizen. The next day Paul appears before the Jewish high priest and his council. Paul, seeing that the council is divided between Pharisees and Sadducees, declares "I am a Pharisee...: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question" (23:6), and the meeting breaks up in dissension between Pharisees and Sadducees.

NOTE: Paul had been a Pharisee before his conversion and, on some of the issues about which Pharisees and Sadducees differed (notably the resurrection of the dead), he still agreed with the Pharisee position. Therefore he chooses to raise this point, which is guaranteed to throw the council into confusion.

When a plot to kill Paul is discovered, he's sent under guard to Felix, the Roman governor, at Caesarea. The high priest comes down from Jerusalem for the hearing but, after speeches by the high priest's lawyer and by Paul, Felix postpones his decision. In fact Felix keeps Paul under house arrest at Caesarea, hoping that Paul will pay a bribe for his release. After two years, Felix is succeeded as governor by Porcius Festus. Festus holds another hearing and asks Paul whether he's willing to stand trial in Jerusalem. Paul replies "I appeal unto Caesar" (25:11). As a Roman citizen, he wants to be tried in the Emperor's court in Rome ("Caesar," like "Augustus" in 25:21, is used as a title; the reigning Emperor was Nero).

King Herod Agrippa II and his sister Bernice come to Caesarea and Festus arranges a meeting between them and Paul. Paul tells the royal pair about his Pharisee background, his persecution of Christians, his conversion, and his preaching. Festus thinks Paul is out of his mind, but King Agrippa, though unconvinced, takes him more seriously. The King remarks, "This man might have been set at liberty, if he had not appealed unto Caesar" (26:32).

NOTE: THE APPEAL TO CAESAR
Festus and King Herod Agrippa presumably know more about the character of Nero and his court than Paul does. According to a reliable tradition, Paul was in fact put to death at Rome during the reign of Nero. Does the author of Acts consider Paul's appeal to Caesar a mistake? Is this one time that Paul's use of the privileges of Roman citizenship, which often got him out of legal difficulties, will turn out disastrously? Common sense says yes- King Agrippa is depicted as a man with common sense. But remember, everything is at a standstill in Caesarea, and it's sensible enough of Paul to want to break the deadlock. What's more important, Paul has had a vision in which Jesus has told him "Be of good cheer, Paul: for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome" (23:11). Thus the author of Acts sees the appeal to Caesar, not merely as a legal maneuver, but as part of God's design.

Paul is taken to Rome by sea, first on a coastal ship to Myra in Asia Minor, then on an Alexandrian vessel which is shipwrecked on Melita (modern Malta), then finally on a second Alexandrian ship to Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli) in Italy, from which Rome is reached by land. The trip well illustrates the hardship and danger of travel in ancient times, and gives the author opportunities to depict Paul's bravery, resourcefulness, and confidence in God. Christians from Rome come out to meet Paul some distance from the city. After his arrival, he preaches as usual to the local Jewish community.

Acts ends with the statement that "Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house [at Rome]... preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ" (28:30-31). Many scholars think the author had completed his plan of telling how the gospel was brought to Rome, and had nothing more to say. Others feel that the ending is so abrupt that some other explanation is called for. Some have thought that Acts was written in the 60s, while Paul was still alive. Others have thought that the author was interrupted, perhaps by death, before he could conclude the story with an account of Paul's martyrdom.

[The New Testament Contents]


ROMANS

OVERVIEW

The Epistle to the Romans is Paul's longest and most important work. It has had a tremendous influence on Christian theology. Paul probably wrote it at Corinth, about A.D. 56 or 57. He sent it to the Christian community at Rome at a time when he was leaving Greece to go to Jerusalem. After visiting Jerusalem, he planned to travel to Spain with a stop in Rome on the way. In Jerusalem, however, Paul was arrested (Acts 21). When he finally did go from Jerusalem to Rome, it was as a prisoner.

In one sense, the theme of this Epistle is the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians- a problem that Paul was concerned with throughout his career. Paul's treatment of this topic leads him into a discussion of fundamental questions of Christian doctrine. Thus, in a broader sense, the main theme of this Epistle is salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.

Virtually all scholars agree that Romans is an authentic work of Paul. Many think, however, that Paul's original Epistle consists only of Romans 1-15, and that Romans 16 is a different letter of Paul's that was appended to the letter he wrote to the Romans.

INTRODUCTION (1:1-17)

Paul identifies himself as "a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto [set apart for] the gospel" (1:1). He tells the Christians of Rome that he has often wanted to visit them, but so far has been prevented. The gospel that he's ready to preach at Rome is, he says, "the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek" (1:16). He then states his central theme: "The just shall live by faith" (1:17)- a quotation from the Old Testament (Habakkuk 2:4).

GENTILES AND JEWS WITHOUT CHRIST (1:18-3:20)

Paul says that "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men" (1:18). First, he considers the Gentiles. Though they were able to know God by seeing His created works, they preferred to worship idols made in the likeness of human beings and animals. Therefore God abandoned them to "the lusts of their own hearts" (1:24).

NOTE: PAUL AND GREEK CIVILIZATION
Paul was born in the Greek city of Tarsus (Acts 21:39). By the time he wrote Romans, he had traveled widely in Gentile areas, chiefly in the Greek cities of Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Greece. This passage seems to show that, as a Jew, he was particularly shocked by two aspects of ancient Greek civilization: the worship of idols, and the relatively widespread practice of sexual relations between people of the same sex. Both were forbidden by the Jewish law (Exodus 20:4-5; Leviticus 18:22).

Then he turns to the Jews. Though they have the Old Testament law, he asks whether they obey it: "thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonorest thou God?" (2:23). He says that those who sin, whether they have the law (Jews) or not (Gentiles), are subject to the wrath of God, while those who do the things commanded by the law- again, whether they actually have it or not- enjoy "glory, honor, and peace" (2:10). Do the Jews, then, have any advantage? Yes, for "unto them were committed the oracles of God" (3:2), that is the Old Testament revelation. Nevertheless, he concludes, "There is none righteous, no, not one" (3:10; an allusion to Psalm 14:1). For Paul, the question of human righteousness without Christ is an academic one: neither Jews nor Gentiles can attain it.

SALVATION THROUGH FAITH IN CHRIST (3:21-5:21)

Having described the miserable condition of humanity without Christ, Paul announces that "now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested," for all believers are "justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (3:21, 24). He repeats "that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law" (3:28).

Paul then looks back to Abraham, "the father of all them that believe" (4:11; see Genesis 11:26-25:10). Since Abraham lived before the days of Moses, he didn't have the Jewish law. He was indeed circumcised, but Paul points out that, before Abraham was circumcised, he "was strong in faith... And therefore it was imputed [credited] to him for righteousness" (4:20, 22; similarly 4:3).

Then Paul contrasts Adam and Christ. He says that "by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned" (5:12). This refers to the sin of Adam. But, he continues "if through the offense of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many" (5:15). Thus he depicts a twofold foundation of the human race: first in sin, with Adam, and second in grace, with Jesus.

NOTE: ORIGINAL SIN
The story of the sin of Adam and Eve, the first parents of the human race, is told in Genesis 3 where, as punishment, they're expelled from Paradise and must endure the drudgery of work, the pain of childbirth, and- ultimately- death. Clearly, these sources of suffering have been part of the human condition from the beginning, but Genesis doesn't explain how the sin of Adam and Eve affected their descendants. Paul discusses this issue- the question of Original Sin- here, but readers disagree about what he means. Some think he's saying that sin and death are inherited from Adam by all people, others that Adam is the first sinner and the model sinner but it is only because "all have sinned" individually that the world is full of sin. The idea that sin and death were transmitted from Adam to the whole race as a hereditary taint was worked out in detail after Paul's time, most fully by Augustine of Hippo (354-430). The evolution of the doctrine of Original Sin has been largely based on the interpretation of this passage in Romans. (The sin of Adam and Eve is the subject of Paradise Lost by John Milton [1608-1674], which many consider the greatest poem in English.)

You may think Paul's references to sin and death sound negative and gloomy, but don't lose sight of the fact that he's conveying his gospel- his "good news"- here. If the beginning of the human race went wrong, there is now a new beginning in which that wrong is undone.

THE NEW LIFE OF THE CHRISTIAN (6:1-8:39)

Having announced that salvation is not through obedience to the law but by God's grace (benevolent gift), through faith in Christ, Paul answers a possible objection: "What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid" (6:15). He argues that those who have died with Christ in baptism have been raised from the dead with Christ to lead a new life. He draws an analogy to slavery, a prevalent institution in his day, saying his readers "were the servants of sin" (6:17). He tells them, "now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness" (6:22). He draws another analogy to marriage. If a woman's husband dies, she is free to remarry. So his Christian readers "are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead" (7:4).

If the law is thus contrasted with grace, Paul asks, "Is the law sin?" He replies "God forbid" (7:7)- "the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good" (7:12). But the human being (Paul here uses himself as an example of what he thinks common to all people) is "carnal, sold under sin" (7:14). Without the law, people would be unconscious of their sinfulness and weakness. But, having the law, it becomes clear to them that they can't live up to its demands.

The law, though itself holy, couldn't make people holy, for it couldn't give them the power to fulfill it. But "what the law could not do" God has now done by "sending his own Son" (8:3) to make Christians "sons of God. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage [law] again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry Abba, Father" (8:14-15).

NOTE: ABBA
Abba is an Aramaic word meaning father. It's an intimate word, more like dad than father. Jesus used this word in prayer (Mark 14:36), emphasizing the warmth and closeness of his relationship with God. Paul, evidently recalling Jesus' use of the word, uses it here to stress that, through Jesus, Christians have also become children of God- by "adoption."

After saying so much about human weakness and the perils of sin and death, Paul ends this section of the Epistle with a powerful call for confidence in God. God knew his own in advance, destined them in advance "to be conformed to the image of his Son" (8:29), called them, justified them, and glorified them. What reason can there be for fear? For "neither death, nor life, nor angels,... nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (8:38-39).

THE JEWS IN GOD'S PLAN (9:1-11:36)

Paul discloses his "continual sorrow" about the Jews, his "kinsmen according to the flesh" (9:2, 3). He recalls that in ancient times they became God's people, receiving the law and the promises of God, and that recently (in fulfillment of those promises) Christ was born to them. Yet, when Christ came, many Jews didn't accept him. Does this mean the promises of God have faded, and Israel is no longer His people?

Paul says the word of God has not failed, "For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel" (9:6). He says the children of God are the descendants of Abraham, not according to the flesh, but according to the promise. (In Genesis 17:5 God had promised Abraham "a father of many nations have I made thee"). Paul argues that this doesn't imply any unfairness on God's part: "Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?" (9:20). Then he quotes two texts from the Old Testament prophets: "I will call them my people, which were not my people" (9:25; Hosea 2:23), which he takes to refer to the Gentile Christians; and "Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, a remnant shall be saved" (9:27; Isaiah 10:22), which he takes to refer to the Jewish Christians.

He prays for the salvation of Israel, and he says the Jews "have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge" (10:2). For the Jews seek salvation through obedience to the law rather than through faith in Christ, in which "there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek" (10:12). Has God then rejected the Jews? Paul says "God forbid" (11: 1). He points out that he's a Jew himself, of the tribe of Benjamin. He then draws an elaborate analogy to the cultivation of the olive tree, which was propagated by grafting. He likens Israel to an olive tree, and says those Jews who haven't become Christians are like branches of the tree that have been broken off, while the Gentile Christians are like branches from the wild olive that have been grafted onto the cultivated tree. He points out that God can graft the non-Christian Jews back onto the tree again, and he predicts "all Israel shall be saved" (11:26) eventually.

NOTE: THE OLIVE TREE
The usual method of olive cultivation in Paul's time was to graft branches from cultivated olive trees onto the trunks of wild olive trees to obtain healthy, productive olive trees. That's why Paul's analogy is "contrary to nature" (11:24).

ADVICE ON CHRISTIAN LIVING (12:1-15:13)

Paul now returns to the theme of the new life of the Christian. He says, "as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office [function]: so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another" (12:4-5), and he urges each person to act according to his own gifts (compare 1 Corinthians 12:27-31). He calls for sincere love, kindness, patience, and perseverance in prayer, and he warns against the spirit of revenge. He urges submission to the government, for "the powers that be are ordained of God" (13:1). In fact, he says Christians should obey the government not only to escape punishment but "for conscience' sake" (13:5). Because the Roman Empire was a pagan state, you may be surprised to find Paul saying this. His sentiments weren't unusual in the early church, though. You'll find the same idea in 1 Peter 2:13-17. Finally, Paul says that "he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law" (13:8), identifying love of one's neighbor as the essence of morality, as Jesus himself had done (Matthew 22:37-40; Mark 12:29- 31; Luke 10:27-28).

NOTE: Is Paul contradicting himself? He has argued at length that Christians aren't saved by the law. Here, where he's giving moral advice, he does not say that acting as he advises will give anyone salvation. He's saying only that, having already been saved by grace, this is the way Christians ought to behave.

Then Paul turns to a particular question apparently causing trouble in the Roman church. Some Christians were abstaining from the use of meat and wine, while others saw no need for such a rule. Some were observing special days, while others weren't. Paul himself believes "that there is nothing unclean of itself" (14:14), but his primary concern is harmony. He recognizes both parties to this dispute as good Christians, and urges them to stop judging one another and to respect each other's consciences. This is a remarkable endorsement of diversity in religious practices.

CONCLUSION (15:14-16:27)

Paul concludes the Epistle with some personal words. He calls himself "the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles" (15:16), and says, "from Jerusalem, and round about unto Illyricum [now Yugoslavia and Albania], I have fully preached the gospel of Christ" (15:19). He plans to visit Jerusalem, then to travel to Spain by way of Rome. He asks for prayers, and hints at some worries about his reception among "them that do not believe in Judea" (15:31). Acts 21 indicates these worries weren't unfounded.

In chapter 16 Paul provides a personal recommendation for a woman named Phoebe, from the church at Cenchreae (one of the port towns of Corinth). He sends friendly greetings to a large number of people, including Priscilla and Aquila. He warns against those who create divisions within the church, and ends the Epistle with a doxologya prayer giving glory to God.

NOTE: IS CHAPTER 16 AN ORIGINAL PART OF ROMANS?

Many scholars think chapter 16 may be another letter, or part of another letter, of Paul that was added on to the Epistle to the Romans. Paul had never been to Rome when he wrote Romans, and yet he greets so many people in Romans 16 that it sounds as if he's writing to some city where he had lived for quite a while. Those who would separate chapter 16 from the rest of the Epistle suggest Ephesus as its probable destination. Paul had worked there for more than two years, and Priscilla and Aquila lived there.

[The New Testament Contents]


1 CORINTHIANS

OVERVIEW

The First Epistle to the Corinthians provides an extremely valuable look at the internal life of a Christian community in the middle of the first century. Virtually all scholars agree that this Epistle was written by Paul. Many hold that Paul wrote the whole Epistle as we now have it, but some think that it consists of parts of two or even three letters that Paul sent to the Christians of Corinth. If it's one work, it was written from Ephesus (16:8) some time in the mid-50s.

FACTIONS IN THE CORINTHIAN CHURCH (1:1-4:21)

The letter is addressed by Paul and Sosthenes to the church at Corinth, an important port city in Greece. Paul has learned that the Corinthian church is divided. People are saying "I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas [Peter]; and I of Christ" (1:12). He asks whether Christ is divided, or whether it was Paul who was crucified. "Who then is Paul," he says, "and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed...? I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase" (3:5-6).

NOTE: THE "CHRIST" PARTY
Scholars disagree about the interpretation of Paul's reference to those who say they are "of Christ." Some believe that the "Christ" party consisted of those Christians who weren't using the name of any particular preacher as a rallying cry, that the "Christ" party was really opposed to factionalism, and that Paul endorses it. Others suggest the "Christ" party was the most divisive group of all- Paul's principal opponents at Corinth- because they rejected the authority of all human teachers and claimed special knowledge received directly from Christ.

Paul isn't very specific about the issues dividing the Corinthian church, although his claim to speak "not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth" (2:13) suggests the factions claimed to possess special wisdom, or religious knowledge. In any case, his main point is clear: "I beseech you... that there be no divisions among you" (1:10).

MORAL PROBLEMS (5:1-6:20)

Paul has heard that one of the Christians of Corinth is living in incest with his stepmother. He urges the Corinthian congregation to have nothing to do with this man- to consign him to Satan, in hopes his soul may thus eventually be saved. This looks like a reference to expulsion from the community. By the same token, Paul has been shocked to hear that Christians are bringing lawsuits against one another. He says Christians, living a new life as the result of their baptism, should settle disputes among themselves rather than in the courts of the pagan Roman government. He concludes this part of the Epistle with a reflection on the demands of this new life. In particular, he condemns sexual immorality, arguing "your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost" (6:19).

MARRIAGE AND CELIBACY (7:1-7:40)

The Corinthians have evidently written to Paul, asking a series of questions about the practical side of the Christian life. Paul first answers a question about marriage. He says that "It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband" (7:1-2). He is celibate himself, and he recommends celibacy to others because it frees people to "attend upon the Lord without distraction" (7:35), but he admits that "it is better to marry than to burn" (7:9) with lust.

While he's on the subject of marriage, Paul urges Christians who are married to non-Christians to remain married to them, in hopes that they may help bring their spouses to salvation. But if the non- Christian spouse insists on breaking up the marriage, Paul says "let him depart" (7:15).

FOOD OFFERED TO IDOLS (8:1-11:1)

The pagan gods were worshiped with sacrifices, often of animals. Some of the meat was burned on the altar of the god's temple, but some might be brought home by worshipers and eaten by themselves and their guests, and some might even be offered for sale in the marketplace. The Corinthians have evidently asked Paul whether Christians may eat such food. It was apparently one of the issues dividing them.

Paul says "we know that an idol is nothing... and that there is none other God but one" (8:4). Therefore, he tells the Corinthians to eat whatever is sold in the market, or whatever is served when they've been invited to a feast by a pagan, "asking no question" (10:25, 27). The fact that the food may have been offered to an idol can't harm the Christian.

NOTE: The position Paul takes here on food offered to idols wasn't typical of early Christian attitudes. The Council of Jerusalem (which Paul had attended!) forbade Christians to eat such food (Acts 15:29). The practice is also vigorously condemned in Revelation 2:14-15, 20.

On the other hand, Paul says, "All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient [advantageous]" (10:23). There are Christians whose consciences are vulnerable and who may be led into sin by seeing their fellow-Christians eating sacrificial offerings. Therefore, Christians shouldn't use all the liberty they possess- when they know food has been offered to idols, they shouldn't eat it lest "the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died" (8:11).

Paul uses himself as an illustration of not using all one's liberty. He says "the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel" (9:14), by accepting contributions from Christians. But he doesn't avail himself of this right (9:15). Paul worked for his living (Acts 18:3) in the midst of his missionary labors. Indeed, he obeys the Jewish law (though he's not bound by it) when he's among Jews, and disregards it when he's among Gentiles, being "all things to all men" (9:22) for the sake of preaching the gospel.

Still, Paul warns strongly against idolatry, relating this to the celebration of the Eucharist: "Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils [pagan gods]: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord's table, and of the table of devils" (10:21). The seeming inconsistency of the argument in 10:1-22 with the rest of Paul's discussion has led some scholars to suggest it comes originally from a different letter.

CONDUCT AT PUBLIC WORSHIP (11:2-34)

Paul gives some instructions about the worship meetings held in Corinth. He calls on men to pray with their heads uncovered, and women with their heads covered, saying this is a sign of the subordination of women. Then he criticizes the Corinthians' celebration of the Lord's Supper. Apparently it took place as part of a meal brought from individual homes. Some didn't have enough, while some overindulged. He recounts the institution of the Eucharist by Jesus (11:23-26), in words similar to those in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-20). Paul advises the Corinthians to eat at home before coming together for the service.

SPIRITUAL GIFTS (12:1-14:40)

The Corinthians appear to have asked Paul about spiritual gifts. Among these he lists wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discerning of spirits, tongues, and interpretation of tongues (12:8-10). The diversity of gifts seems to have given rise to dissension, and Paul reminds his readers, "by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body" (12:13). Echoing the teaching of Romans 12:4-5, he says Christians will possess different gifts, just as the body's organs have different functions. More important than any of these gifts, he declares, is "charity."

NOTE: CHARITY (LOVE)
The Greeks had three words for love: eros, philos, and agape. Eros usually means sexual love. Philos usually means friendship. Agape, the least common of the three in Greek usage, but the word for love most often used in the New Testament, is the word Paul uses here. It usually means unselfish love.

Without charity, Paul says, the gifts of tongues, prophecy, knowledge, and faith- even the gift of giving all one's goods to the poor- are worthless. "Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things" (13:4-7). Other gifts will pass away, but charity will not pass away. This is Paul's most memorable exposition of his teaching, "he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law" (Romans 13:8).

Turning to the gift apparently causing most division in the Corinthian church- speaking in tongues- Paul warns that it can be overrated. "I thank my God," he says, "I speak with tongues more than ye all: yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding... than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue" (14:18-19). He says no more than three people should do it at one meeting, and that what they say should be interpreted.

NOTE: SPEAKING IN TONGUES
The practice of speaking in tongues (glossolalia) means the utterance of uncomprehensible sounds by Christians who felt themselves inspired by the Spirit. The sounds might be taken as foreign languages, or as unknown languages (the tongues of angels). This experience is referred to also in Acts 2:4, 10:46, and 19:6.

It seems that women were doing most of the speaking in tongues at Corinth, perhaps even monopolizing the practice (14:36). Accordingly, Paul says, "Let your women keep silence in the churches" (14:34).

THE RESURRECTION (15:1-58)

Paul has learned some of the Corinthians "say... that there is no resurrection of the dead" (15:12). He strongly defends the teaching "Christ died for our sins" and "rose again the third day" (15:3-4), citing the original witnesses and his own vision of the risen Jesus- presumably a reference to his conversion experience (Acts 9:3-6). He then echoes the teaching of Romans 5:12-21: "as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive" (15:22). He likens burial of the dead to sowing seed in a field and resurrection to growing grain from the seed, out of the earth. The body, he explains, "is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption... it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body" (15:42, 44).

In the course of his discussion, Paul quotes the Thais of the popular Greek playwright Menander (342-291 B.C.): "evil communications corrupt good manners" (15:33).

CONCLUSION (16:1-24)

Paul reminds his readers about the collection of funds "for the saints" (16:1), the poor of the Jerusalem church. He says he plans to stay in Ephesus for a while, then travel to Corinth by way of Macedonia. He speaks of possible future visits to Corinth by Timothy and Apollos. He says he's glad Stephanas and other Corinthian emissaries have come to him, and sends greetings from Aquila and Priscilla, "with the church that is in their house" (16:19).

[The New Testament Contents]


2 CORINTHIANS

OVERVIEW

Virtually all scholars agree that the Second Epistle to the Corinthians is (with the possible exception of 6:14-7:1) authentic work of Paul. Most believe, however, that the Epistle in its existing form contains material from two or more letters of Paul.

Certainly chapters 1-9 and chapters 10-13 seem to have been written under different circumstances. By the same token, chapters 8 and 9, though dealing with the same subject, don't seem to have been originally joined together. Scholars have made various attempts to reconstruct the original form of the material in 2 Corinthians. One plausible suggestion is as follows:

  1. 10:1-13:14 is a letter, or part of a letter, written by Paul after encountering serious opposition in Corinth, evidently including an attack on his credentials as an apostle.
  2. 1:1-6:13 and 7:2-8:24 is a subsequent letter of reconciliation, in which Paul refers (2:4) to the previous letter. Some scholars think 2:14-6:13 and 7:2-4 are from one letter and 1:1-2:13 and 7:5-8:24 are from another. Some, too, regard chapter 8 as a separate unit.
  3. 9:1-15 comes from a different letter.
  4. 6:14-7:1 is thought by some scholars to be a later addition, not written by Paul.

Don't be discouraged by the problem of the arrangement of the material. The most important thing is that 2 Corinthians consists of correspondence of Paul to Corinth dealing chiefly with his concept of Christian ministry. The material or most of it was probably written in Macedonia, in northern Greece, in the mid-50s.

INTRODUCTION (1:1-11)

Paul and Timothy write to the Christians of Corinth and all Achaia (the Roman province- basically southern Greece- of which Corinth was capital). They've recently had trouble in Asia Minor, so as to be "pressed out of measure... insomuch that we despaired even of life" (1:8). This may refer to an imprisonment of Ephesus not recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.

CHRISTIAN MINISTRY (1:12-7:16)

Paul says, "God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (4:6). He contrasts the ministry "of the new testament" with that of the Jewish law, remarking, "the letter [the law] killeth, but the spirit giveth life" (3:6). When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the tables of the law, Paul recalls, his face shone so brightly he had to wear a veil when he spoke to the Israelites (Exodus 34:29-35). If the law was so glorious, the gospel is more glorious still- it is Christ who has done away with the veil and revealed the glory of God!

Although Paul affirms, "where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty" (3:17), he warns Christians not to abuse their liberty. A new, better way of life is called for, since "if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature" (5:17). This section of the Epistle includes a stern warning against fellowship with unbelievers (6:14-7:1).

NOTE: Many scholars think 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 wasn't written by Paul. In 1 Corinthians 10:27 Paul doesn't object to Christians accepting invitations to feasts with pagans, and in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 he advises Christians with pagan husbands or wives to maintain their marriages if possible. The condemnation of fellowship here seems inconsistent with that advice.

THE COLLECTION FOR JERUSALEM (8:1-9:15)

Paul urges the Corinthians to give generously for the relief of poor Christians in Jerusalem. The churches of Macedonia have given liberally, he emphasizes in chapter 8, and asks the Corinthians to do the same. In chapter 9, which many scholars think was written on a different occasion, Paul says he's been bragging to the Christians of Macedonia about how much the Corinthians have been giving, and asks them not to make a liar out of him. He says, "God loveth a cheerful giver" (9:7). These chapters provide an excellent glimpse of Paul's methods as a fundraiser.

PAUL CONFRONTS HIS OPPONENTS (10:1-13:14)

Paul warns against "false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ" (11:13). He defends his mission, even at the risk of sounding foolishly boastful. He depicts his life, "in labors more abundant, in stripes [beatings] above measure, in prisons more frequent" (11:23) than his opponents'. He says, as if speaking of someone else, that fourteen years earlier he was "caught up to the third heaven... and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter" (12:2, 4). But, to prevent him from becoming overly proud, he was given "a thorn in the flesh" (12:7). He asked the Lord three times to take this away, but the Lord answered "My grace is sufficient for thee" (12:9). Paul doesn't identify the infirmity he calls his "thorn in the flesh." One suggested explanation is eye trouble (see Galatians 4:15, 6:11).

Paul says he plans to visit Corinth, but he's afraid he may find the church there divided by "strifes, backbitings, whisperings" (12:20). He urges the Corinthians to mend their ways before his arrival.

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