Acts 9

Chapter nine begins with “MEANWHILE,” an ominous segue pitting God’s great work through Philip with Satan’s work through Saul. That was about to change. Securing warrants for all Jewish believers found in and around synagogues (their jurisdiction), Saul traveled to Damascus, more than 150 miles north of Jerusalem, to arrest these Jews who had turned to worship Jesus (Acts 9:1-9). On the way, Jesus himself stopped Saul, and Saul was converted as well. However, the encounter blinded him, so he spent three days fasting and praying in darkness.

One of the disciples in Damascus Paul certainly would have arrested was Ananias. In a vision, God told him to go to Saul and lay hands on him so he could see again (Acts 9:10-12). Naturally, Ananias was reluctant, but God told him that Saul was God’s man now, the one who would present the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 9:13-16). Ananias obeyed. Saul regained his sight and immediately began preaching Christ, which caused him to have to run for his life (Acts 9:17-25). Paul included more detail in Galatians 1-2 than Luke does here, but eventually Saul made it back to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles, with Barnabas vouching for him (Acts 9:26-30).

During this time Peter also did some itinerant preaching, performing miracles as Jesus did, including healing a paralyzed man and raising a woman from the dead (Acts 9:32-43). This solidified the focus of the two men – Peter to the Jews and Paul to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:7-9).

Acts 8

Chapter eight introduces the key antagonist of the story. Luke mentioned that Saul was a co-conspirator at Stephen’s murder, albeit not a full participant. The most zealous of his peers (Galatians 1:14), Saul used Stephen’s “blasphemy” as the perfect catalyst to begin an outright war with these Jewish traitors, who blatantly worshiped a criminal instead of God. He made it his personal mission to “DESTROY THE CHURCH” by any means necessary (Acts 8:1-3).

Like the Tower of Babel, however, God used this as the catalyst to scatter the early Christians and spread the gospel. For the first time, Samaritans were presented with the truth, and they accepted it in multitudes (Acts 8:4-8). The miracles Philip performed convinced even a local magician, Simon, that this message was truly from God (Acts 8:9-13). Peter and John arrived from Jerusalem to confirm what was happening, which they saw when the Holy Spirit came on the Samaritans (Acts 8:14-17). This impressed the magician who wanted that power as well, offering money to learn their “spell” (Acts 8:18-25). Some have questioned Simon’s salvation because of this, but Peter’s command that he should “REPENT OF THIS WICKEDNESS” and pray for forgiveness seems to indicate that his infant faith was genuine.

Luke recorded one more scenario of the gospel spreading beyond the Jewish people (Acts 8:26-40). Philip received a direct order through an angel to meet with a man on the road between Jerusalem and Gaza, whom he discovered to be an Ethiopian official. Philip caught up with him and got into his chariot, realizing that the man was reading from the prophet Isaiah without understanding it. Philip was able to start from that passage (Isaiah 53:7-8) and point him to Jesus. The Ethiopian believed, and Philip baptized him immediately. The Holy Spirit then “SNATCHED PHILIP AWAY” (the same verb used for the Rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4:17) and dropped him in Azotus, where he continued to preach the gospel.

There is a textual note to consider regarding Acts 8:37. Only a handful of Greek manuscripts include this verse, and most of them were copied during the tenth to twelfth centuries (AD 900-1100). Because of their late date and scarcity, it is best to see this verse as a later addition to Acts.

1 Corinthians 9

Chapter nine continues the teaching on Christian freedom, expanding out from the initial question about food dedicated to idols. In order to expound on that more, Paul demonstrated how he treated others. There should have been no question as to whether or not Paul was an apostle, which meant he should have full access to the freedoms we have in Christ (1 Corinthians 9:1-3).

When he was asked about how to live out his freedoms, he pointed to his ministry (1 Corinthians 9:4-12a). As an apostle, he had the right to have a wife and minister alongside her. As an apostle, he had the right to be financially supported by the people he had pointed to Christ and the churches he started. The other apostles did that, and he had those rights as well. In fact, it made no sense that his spiritual children should not take care of his financial needs, and he gave a series of illustrations to prove it.

As he showed in chapter eight, however, the question is not one of rights and freedoms but love. The fact that he had those rights did not mean that he forced them on others. In fact, in many cases he did not exercise his rights, “so that we may not be a hindrance to the gospel of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:12b-18). Paul chose to forego his rights and freedoms, because he had been charged (and may have been accused even in Corinth) of being like the traveling charlatans, snake-oil salesmen, who deceitfully sold their wares then left town. Because of his itinerant ministry, Paul chose to not take funds from the places he was preaching, so that when he left town, the new believers would not feel taken advantage of, thereby hurting the gospel ministry.

Broadly speaking, then, Paul chose to use his freedoms to make the most of the opportunities, depending on whom he was ministering to (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). Rather than flaunting his freedoms, he chose to limit them for the benefit of those around him. This is what he meant when he wrote several years earlier, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use freedom as an opportunity to indulge your flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13).

Ultimately, he refused to let his personal desires control him (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). Doing so could disqualify him from future ministry. Instead, he controlled his desires. Even though it was uncomfortable or restrictive sometimes, it was better that people came to know Jesus than that Paul maintained his personal freedoms and rights.

Romans 14

Chapter fourteen deals with another issue in Christianity, namely, the practice of one believer forcing his convictions and preferences on another believer and condemning him if he does not agree and submit. Paul introduced a new categorization of believers at this point: strong and weak. 1 Using illustrations like what we are permitted to eat and which day or days we should set aside as sacred, Paul concluded that the believer who places himself under restrictions that God did not specifically prohibit is “weak,” because engaging in such activities would violate his personal conscience, causing him to sin. A “strong brother,” on the other hand, is not burdened by these extra-biblical prohibitions and, thus, can freely participate without sinning, because they are not God’s prohibitions at all (Romans 14:14). Paul did not give an exhaustive list of activities, because it can include any restriction that a believer places on himself that God did not command. Not surprisingly, even modern believers still wrestle with the broad categories mentioned like entertainment (TV, movies, playing cards, music), substances (certain foods, alcohol, some drugs), and special days (when the church gathers).

However, Paul did not leave the question with just a definition of terms. There are two principles that we are to learn and live in light of this truth. First, “weak” is not the desired state for a Christian. Because these are extra-biblical prohibitions, God wants us to grow from “weak” to “strong” in our faith, so we are not weighed down. The second principle is equally important, though. Just because a “strong” brother can participate in these activities, it does not mean that he always should. In fact, Paul commanded “strong” Christians to specifically withhold from participation if they know that engaging in them could cause a “weak” Christian to fall into sin by participating as well. In this scenario, rather than helping our weaker brothers, the stronger brothers actually become an obstacle to our fellow Christians’ growth, potentially destroying God’s work in them, which is the opposite of love. A decade earlier Paul acknowledged that it was “for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Yet we must “not use [our] freedom as an opportunity to indulge [our] flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:1, 13). Continuing his theme from chapter twelve, Paul implored, “So then, let us pursue what makes for peace and for building up one another” (Romans 14:19).

Notes:

  1. These are slightly different from his categories in 1 Corinthians 3:1-5. There “carnal” refers to a believer who is driven by his sin nature, and “spiritual” is a believer driven by the Holy Spirit.

Romans 13

Chapter thirteen continues with our Christian lifestyle in this world, beginning with our interaction with human government (Romans 13:1-7). Government has always been a favorite “whipping boy” for the masses and for good reason: Corrupt people with power use that power to do corrupt things. Or as Lord Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Since we are all corrupt by nature, as Paul thoroughly taught in the early chapters, only believers have the ability to govern out of a godly nature, but even that is not guaranteed. However, human government was established by God in order to maintain peace and justice among the people. Therefore, we are subject, even to corrupt governments, to obey whatever is within their jurisdiction, including taxes, which Paul had to mention specifically, because they have never been desirable. 1

Romans 13:8 has often been used to “prove” that financial debt is a sin in Christianity, but the context is relational, not financial. We can find other passages showing the negative side of financial debt (Proverbs 6:1-5 and 22:7, for instance), but Paul was referring to fulfilling our relational obligations in loving one another (specifically our fellow believers, Romans 13:9-10). The reason this is so important is because we cannot know the timing of Jesus’ return, and we are to be working faithfully as we anticipate him (Romans 13:11-14). This includes living “decently,” which Paul means to “make no provision for the flesh to arouse its desires” (see Romans 8:5-11; Galatians 5:16-26).

Notes:

  1. Obviously, God’s law still transcends man’s law, so when the two conflict, “We must obey God rather than people” (Acts 5:29).

Romans 12

Chapter twelve begins the final section of Paul’s letter, in which he took the immense doctrine taught in the first eleven chapters and provided several principles and commands that should drive the Christian lifestyle. The first step of true discipleship after initial saving faith is for a Christian to make the declaration that he is “all-in” (Romans 12:1-2) In chapter six Paul taught that the believer has been freed from the power of sin, so he should live as if this were true. Before getting to the rest of his application, Paul stated how this is done. It is a willful decision to submit one’s entire body to God like a sacrifice (“present…your members to God as instruments to be used for righteousness,” Romans 6:13). This will keep us from being shaped by the world system, and instead we will be able to discern and understand God’s good will, so we can live wisely.

As we begin to know and obey God and his Word better, we will begin to think like him, which will result in thinking of ourselves and others properly, which displays itself in three ways. The first has to do with spiritual giftedness (Romans 12:3-8). Outside of 1 Corinthians 12, this chapter contains the most compact teaching on the Church as the Body of Christ. Paul emphasized the truth that the members belong to each other and that we are to serve each other in the unique ways God has enabled us. The list of gifts mentioned here focuses primarily on the task or serving gifts (as opposed to the fuller list in 1 Corinthians). The gifts are manifestations of God’s grace given to us, and ten years later Peter would write that God considers us managers of that grace (1 Peter 4:10).

Second, we are to focus on the growth of our fellow believers in our general interactions (Romans 12:9-16). This is essentially a series of “proverbs,” short principles that stand on their own. They can be memorized as “sound bites” that we can take with us into every situation. Although our English translations do not always reflect it, verses 9-13 comprise one long sentence describing what sincere love (“without hypocrisy”) looks like (similar to 1 Corinthians 13:4-7). It looks for opportunities to bless others, empathize with them, and “live in harmony” with them.

The third change in our thinking about ourselves and others is displayed in our interaction with unbelievers in the world around us (Romans 12:16-21). In these final verses Paul changed his language from “one another” to “anyone” and “all people,” not just fellow believers. Whereas Christians are commanded to “live in harmony with one another,” Paul understood that was not always possible with unbelievers, so he added the caveat, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people.” It is impossible to completely “live in harmony” with those who have opposing worldviews (this would be a kind of partnership, 2 Corinthians 6:14-18), but we can strive to live in peace with them, a theme common in the apostles’ letters (see 1 Thessalonians 4:12; Colossians 4:12; Galatians 6:10; Titus 3:1-2; 1 Peter 2:11-12). This kind of living peaceably involves not taking personal vengeance and not letting the world’s evil overcome us so that we stop living out our new godly nature.

Romans 8

Chapter eight provides the answer to Paul’s internal struggle from chapter seven, the same struggle many believers consistently fight today. Paul learned that the mindset shift required in chapter six is not something he could force himself to do; rather, he needed to submit completely to the Holy Spirit, “the life-giving Spirit in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1-11). Rather than insisting that he fulfill the Law, Paul realized that Jesus’ death made it “so that the righteous fulfillment of the law may be fulfilled in us.” In us, not by us. Submission to sin and the Spirit are mutually exclusive (Galatians 5:17), because sin and the law bring death, but the Spirit brings life.

Because of this truth our obligation is to live as truly free from sin and alive to the Spirit who is making us alive (Romans 8:12-13). This is a significant change from the early parts of Romans. In the first seven chapters, the Holy Spirit is mentioned only once (Romans 5:5); in comparison, chapter eight refers to the Spirit nearly twenty times in a dozen verses. Not only does he give us life, he assures us that we are God’s children (Romans 8:14-17). He empowers us to understand and endure our present sufferings and anticipate our future redemption (Romans 8:18-25). He helps us pray in our weakness and struggles and realize that sufferings are necessary to fulfill God’s will for us – becoming like Jesus himself (Romans 8:26-30).

This section closes with a great series of rhetorical questions in which Paul celebrates the dramatic difference between our state in chapter one compared to what God’s immense grace and righteousness accomplishes by chapter eight. Consider the effects on believers:

  • No one can stand against us (Romans 8:31)
  • Nothing is withheld from us (Romans 8:32)
  • No one can charge us with any sin (Romans 8:33)
  • No one can condemn us (Romans 8:34)
  • No one and nothing can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:35-39)