The Pursuit of God

Serious Topics for Serious Christians

Know Your Bible Lesson 80: The Wrath of Agrippa

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AUDIO VERSION: YouTube  Podbean

As we begin Acts 12, we’re in Jerusalem: a city which is ruled over by Herod Agrippa I—a zealous follower of Judaism.  Passover is rapidly approaching, and Agrippa decides that now would be a fine time to purge Jerusalem of these Jewish traitors who are exalting that blasphemous Jesus fellow who went around claiming equality with Yahweh.  How can any true Jew be a fan of that outrageous Traitor?  The Christians are teaching that Israel’s long awaited Messiah turned out to be nothing more than some unknown son of a carpenter who was quickly crucified without lifting a finger to save Israel from Roman oppression.  Well, no, zealous followers of New Testament Judaism are certainly not going to accept such a despairing message.  Yahweh promised them a hero—Jesus turned out to be a zero.  So how dare these Jewish punks say that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah?  Agrippa tells his military muscle to start hunting down any known fans of Jesus and an intense persecution begins.  John’s brother James—who was one of the original twelve—gets chopped down with a sword.  When Agrippa receives word that Jewish Jesus haters are singing his praises for launching this assault on Jewish Christians, Agrippa is pleased and he decides to keep going.  Let’s see, who else could he kill to put an end to this annoying exaltation of Jesus?  Who do these Jewish traitors view as their greatest, most influential leader?  Peter of course, so Agrippa has Peter arrested right before Passover.  This is devastating news for the Christians, and just in case any of them decide to attempt a jailbreak, Agrippa assigns sixteen soldiers to guard Peter in his cell.  Then, feeling fabulous about his progress, he takes a break to enjoy Passover, after which he plans to put Peter on trial.

Then King Herod imprisoned Peter, placing him under the guard of four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring Peter out for public trial after the Passover. But while Peter was in prison, the church prayed very earnestly for him. (Acts 12:4-5)

At this point, we need to pause and really think about what we believe about the sovereignty of God and the power of prayer.  Notice what these Jews are praying for: Peter’s welfare.  But why?  After all, isn’t it obvious that God wanted Peter to be arrested?  It is if you believe that God is in absolute control at all times.  But if you believe God is some limited, less than competent Ruler who frequently drops the ball and gets outsmarted by demons and humans, well then you think this business about praying for Peter makes sense.  But no, it doesn’t.  Not only is it nonsensical to pray for Peter, it’s utterly insulting to God, and it’s very important that you understand why.

Let’s break this down.  We’re told that Peter is arrested, then we’re told that his Christian pals are praying for him. But what exactly are they praying for?  No doubt they’re making the typical Christian requests: “God, please be with him.  Please comfort him. Please help him.  Please get him out.”  What’s wrong with praying like this?  Everything.

For starters, Peter being arrested isn’t some fluke.  Yahweh says He is a very purposeful Creator.  (So are Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but it’s only Yahweh who these Jews in Acts are praying to.)  Yahweh says that He is always in absolute control, not partial control.  This means that everything that happens in this world is what Yahweh wants to happen.  Peter got arrested because Yahweh wanted Peter to get arrested.  Put yourself in the sandals of one of Peter’s praying pals.  Are you showing any respect for Yahweh’s Authority when you immediately start talking like Peter’s arrest is some terrible thing that wasn’t supposed to happen?  No, you’re accusing Yahweh of making a wrong move.  Really?  So now you’re wiser than Yahweh?  Now you know better than He does about how to run this world?  Are you trying to imply that you care more about Peter than Yahweh does?  Of course you are.  You think Peter getting arrested was bad for Peter, and you want Yahweh to undo it and treat Peter the way you think Peter ought to be treated.  Well, guess what?  Your assessment of what Peter needs isn’t worth a hill of beans.  When it comes to nurturing other souls along, you’ve got as much wisdom as a rock.  Yahweh is infinitely wiser than you are, and He loves Peter far more than you do.  If you had any confidence in Yahweh’s Character, you wouldn’t be so quick to assume He’s being some unloving, uncaring Creator the minute you find out that Peter got arrested.  And you certainly wouldn’t suggest that Yahweh actually ditched Peter.  Yahweh never ditches any soul that He has made.  He never abandons us. Yet there you are praying, “Please be with Peter.”  Really??  Where do you think Yahweh is if you don’t think He’s with Peter?  Do you think He’s off taking a coffee break somewhere on Mars?  Is He in bed napping?

We Christians do a terrible job of thinking about what we’re saying to God.  We just blast Him with a bunch of snarky, obnoxious requests which utterly insult Him and demonstrate our refusal to believe anything He’s said about Himself.  Then we have the gall to pretend we’re actually pleasing Him by the way we’re talking to Him.  Well, no, it certainly isn’t pleasing to your omnipresent God when you ask Him to be with someone.  God is omnipresent.  There is nowhere any of us can go to escape the Presence of God, yet we really don’t have much confidence that He is with us, do we?  No, we don’t—that’s why we’re always pleading for Him to show up in our prayers and worship songs.  Well why is it that Christians have such a lack of confidence in one of God’s most basic qualities?  Because we’re always rejecting what God says about Himself.

Faith is built by trusting in truths that God has revealed to you about who He is and how He operates.  Faith grows strong by embracing those truths even when they are not being accompanied by a bunch of sensual confirmation.  If Jesus were to materialize in your bedroom, then you saying, “Jesus is with me,” is not a faith based statement.  In such a moment, you are relying entirely on your physical senses to confirm Jesus’ Presence with you—faith has nothing to do with it.  Faith only gets involved when there is no sensual confirmation available.  It’s when you can’t see, hear, or touch Jesus that you must rely on faith to say, “Jesus is with me,” and that faith is about you trusting in the fact that Jesus claims to be with you at all times.  You’re trusting in Jesus’ Character when you put your faith in the things He says to you.  You’re saying, “Because You’re the One talking, I consider Your words to have validity and I trust that You are telling me the truth about how You operate.”  This is how faith works.

Now faith is very much a “use it or lose it” affair.  If you want strong faith, you have to practice embracing truths that God has taught you.   If instead you keep rejecting what God’s told you, then your faith will wither and croak like a dehydrated plant.  Where there is no faith, fear abounds.  Why is this?  Because without faith, you are left with only your senses to determine reality for you and your senses are very fickle by nature and extremely easy to deceive.

Today scores of Christians in the Church are trying to relate to God on a sensual level.  This is why we are so obsessed with worship songs, concerts, and entertaining church services.  Music is a fabulous way to spike our adrenaline levels and improve our moods.  When your senses are all you’ve got to confirm that God cares about you, then it becomes critical to regularly force yourself into a good mood, because it’s only when you’re excited and happy that God “feels” near.  When you’re down, He “feels” far away, and you go crashing into despair.  Today you’ll hear many Christians talking about how much they need to be in fellowship on a regular basis.  They’ll talk about how quickly they “go astray” when they stop attending church and how just being around the brothers really makes them feel connected to God.  When souls talk like this, they’re just demonstrating how weak their faith really is.  If you need some guy on a stage to juice the music before you can have any confidence that God cares about you, then you really have no confidence at all—you’re just playing labeling games.

God is not a church, a Bible, or a group of other human beings who call themselves Christians.  If you can’t separate yourself from these things without also feeling separated from God, then you need to wake up and realize that you’re in a serious spiritual crisis.  You’re like a married woman who moans that she’s become single again whenever her husband is out of sight.  What should we say to a woman who says that she needs to sit in a room looking at her wedding dress before she can feel married?  Clearly such a woman is quite misguided about what a marriage even is.  In the same way, Christians who say that they can’t possibly know God’s will without cracking open a Bible or consulting with other humans have some serious delusions about what true Christianity is.

Christianity isn’t a social activity, and your relationship with God isn’t some emotional buzz.  Relating to God is about your soul communing with its three Creators on a spiritual level.  There are no earthly props needed for your soul to communicate with Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.  Your current location on earth, your current emotional state, and your current circumstances have nothing to do with your ability to communicate with your Creators.  It doesn’t matter if you’re standing in a church or driving in your car.  It doesn’t matter if you’re happy or sad, rich or poor.  The pursuit of God is an entirely spiritual activity, and faith is the bedrock on which your relationship with God is built.  Because God is not a human being, He doesn’t act like a human, and you can’t relate to Him the way that you do other humans.  God doesn’t have an earthsuit, and He isn’t going to relate to you on an earthsuit level.  This means that He will not commune with you in only sensual ways, and the more you try to insist that He do this, the less sensuality He will give you.  Why?  Because God doesn’t want you to be like a wife who forgets she’s married every time her husband leaves her field of vision.  God wants you to remain confident in His great love for you and in His Presence with you no matter what your senses are doing. God doesn’t want you to spend your life getting jerked from one emotional extreme to another.  He doesn’t want you constantly pitching from highs to lows, but instead He wants you to experience the calm, steady, satisfying soul peace that comes from strong confidence in who He is. You’re never going to get there until you start building faith, and you can’t build faith until you start embracing the truths that God has already revealed to you.  We’re not talking about Bible verses here, we’re talking about insights which God has revealed to your personal soul about who He is and how He operates. Every Christian has received many such insights, but most of us never stop to take inventory of them because we’re so busy praying like rebellious idiots.

Suppose Jack decides that he wants to quickly build up his bicep muscles.  How should he go about this?  Well, lifting weights would be a good place to start.  So Jack goes to the gym and starts lifting weights.  But between reps, Jack pulls out a pen knife and stabs himself with it.  Lift, stab, lift, stab, lift, stab.  How long do you think this system is going to work?  It’s not.  Even though Jack came to the gym to build muscle, this stabbing thing he’s doing is damaging his muscles and making it impossible for him continue with his workout.  If you saw Jack doing this to himself, what would you do?  You’d try to stop him. You’d try to take his knife away and you’d say something like, “Are you crazy?  Why are you stabbing yourself and crippling your own body?”

Well, this is how crazy we Christians are being when we talk about wanting to gain more faith and then we turn around and start rejecting every truth God has ever taught us.  God says He’s with us so we pray, “God please be with me,” and we sing songs like Holy Spirit Come Fill This Place.  God says that He is wiser than we are, so we constantly criticize what He’s doing and tell Him what He should be doing instead.  God says that He loves us so we plead with Him not to abandon us and to actually care about us.  God says that He’s always protecting us, so we plead for Him to send His angels to watch over us in His absence.  God says He’s always listening to us, so we beg Him to listen to us.  Jesus says He’s atoned for all of our sins, so we beg and plead for God to forgive us over and over again.  God says that He knows us inside and out, so we try to keep secrets from Him, convinced that He’d reject us if He ever really knew us.  God says that He accepts us as we are, so we tell Him that He can’t possibly accept us as we are.  When God says we’re saved we keep begging Him to save us.  When God says that He’s over our past, we keep insisting that He’s holding some epic grudge over the nasty things we’ve done.  We’re acting just like Jack: lift, stab, lift, stab.  And like Jack, our destructive behavior wins out over our efforts to better ourselves, and our faith ends up collapsing onto the ground as a crippled, gasping mess.

In Acts 12, nasty King Herod arrests Peter.  Herod wants to trash the Christians, but Yahweh says that Herod is not the one in charge of the world.  Yahweh says that nothing happens to Peter that Yahweh doesn’t want to happen to Peter.  Yahweh says that He loves Peter and is purposely arranging circumstances in Peter’s life to create opportunities for Peter to spiritually thrive.  Yahweh says that He knows what is best for Peter and that He has everything under control.  So what do the Christians in Jerusalem do?  They freak out and start pleading with Yahweh to intervene in this horrible crisis.  In other words, these Jews are rejecting all of the truths that Yahweh has already revealed to them about who He is and how He operates.  Yahweh says that He can be counted on, they say He can’t.  Yahweh says that He is good, but these Christians aren’t buying it, just as we aren’t buying it today.

The point we want you to grasp is this: if you pray like the folks in the Bible pray, you are going to end up in a faithless mess.  Today, the Church is teaching you to imitate the praying style of a bunch of faithless, foolish souls who we read about in the Bible (see Spiritual Maturity in the Bible: Where is it?).  Because most of the folks we read about are either hardened rebels or spiritual infants, the Bible is filled with crisis praying.  This is when we ignore God until some problem arises—then we freak out and start bossing Him around like He’s some incompetent Halfwit.  Listen to the garbage that our famed prayer warriors are flinging today, and you’ll hear endless domination themes.  Prayer warriors talk to God like He’s some blind moron who lives to do their bidding.  They’re always telling Him what to do and how to do it, as if they’re so much smarter than He is.  When He does what they want, they give Him some condescending pat on the head.  When He delays, they try to coerce Him with the power of nagging.  If you pray like the New Testament apostles or our modern day prayer superstars you’re going to pray yourself into a pit hole of doubt and delusions.  So when it comes to praying right, you can’t look to the Bible and you can’t look to the Church, because both of these are showing you the wrong way to pray.  Only God can teach you how to pray right, so if you are serious about pleasing Him, you need to seriously seek His wisdom on this subject.

PETER IS MIRACULOUSLY FREED

The night before Peter was to be placed on trial, he was asleep, fastened with two chains between two soldiers. Others stood guard at the prison gate. Suddenly, there was a bright light in the cell, and an angel of Yahweh stood before Peter. The angel struck him on the side to awaken him and said, “Quick! Get up!” And the chains fell off his wrists. Then the angel told him, “Get dressed and put on your sandals.” And he did. “Now put on your coat and follow me,” the angel ordered. (Acts 12:6-8)

Here’s a classic picture of God at work.  First, He waits until the last minute to free Peter.  It’s the night before Peter’s trial.  This has given Peter plenty of time to contemplate his situation, feel the limits of his confidence in Yahweh’s goodness, and hopefully pray some smart prayers.  Did Peter take advantage of this fabulous opportunity for spiritual growth?  We’ll never know.  But suddenly an angel appears and gives Peter a hard whack.  There’s no gentle shaking of the shoulder for this apostle.  Jolted awake, of course Peter is stunned.  He’s also being kept in a humiliating undressed state and chained to two guards who God is keeping in a dead sleep.  The angel waits for Peter to get dressed, then leads him out of the prison.  The whole situation is so utterly fantastic that Peter thinks he’s dreaming.

So Peter left the cell, following the angel. But all the time he thought it was a vision. He didn’t realize it was actually happening. They passed the first and second guard posts and came to the iron gate leading to the city, and this opened for them all by itself. So they passed through and started walking down the street, and then the angel suddenly left him.

Peter finally came to his senses. “It’s really true!” he said. “Yahweh has sent His angel and saved me from Herod and from what the Jewish leaders had planned to do to me!” (Acts 12:9-11)

So why does Peter get the angel treatment while James got chopped down with a sword?  Does this mean Peter is more loved?  Not at all.  We’re all on individual journeys through this world, and our Gods have allotted us different amounts of time here.  Assuming that James was actually saved, he is already in Heaven by the time Peter is being freed from jail.  So does that mean James has it better?  No, because we’re each on our own journeys.

If you’re wise, you’re going to view your time in this world as the unique opportunity that it is to make critical soul choices about how you’re going to respond to your Makers.  You’ll ask Them to help you make the most of your time here by progressing in your relationship with Them as much as you possibly can.  If you take this approach to your life, then you’re going to be glad to leave when They say it’s time.  It’s only when we get our priorities backwards that we cling to this place and act like leaving it is some horrible thing.  Our tour through this world was only ever meant to be a temporary thing.  This is your first major assignment that your Gods have given you.  You want to do it well, then be eager to graduate on to the next adventure that They have planned for you.  Once you realize how individual our journeys are, there’s no need to envy those who have already gone to Heaven before you, nor is there any need to panic when it’s your turn to leave.  When we align our priorities with our Gods’, we end up getting the most out of our journey here without losing sight of what really matters.

Now once Peter snaps out of his stunned haze and realizes that he really has been miraculously sprung from jail, he runs over to the home of Mary, who we’re told is the mother of a man named John Mark.  Mary and other believers are praying inside of the house when one of Mary’s servant girls hears someone banging on the gate door.

He knocked at the door in the gate, and a servant girl named Rhoda [RO-duh] came to open it. When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed that, instead of opening the door, she ran back inside and told everyone, “Peter is standing at the door!”

“You’re out of your mind!” they said. When she insisted, they decided, “It must be his angel.” (Acts 12:12-15)

The Jews were very superstitious people who were quite receptive to being visited by supernatural beings.  The great irony is that these folks are probably desperately praying for Yahweh to save Peter, yet here they are totally closed to the idea that Yahweh would actually do such a thing.  This is what happens when we grind our faith into the dirt by constantly rejecting God’s truths: we beg and beg for God to give us things, and when He does, we refuse to receive them.  Love, salvation, acceptance, forgiveness—Christians are constantly rejecting the many blessings that God graciously heaps upon them today.

Well, here’s Rhoda: trying to convince a bunch of faithless Christians that she’s not delusional.  They finally grant that she saw something real—but they decide that it was just some angel who was associated with Peter, not Peter in the flesh.  The Jews were way too enamored with angels, and they liked to tell themselves that Yahweh assigned His angels to watch over us.  It’s from the Jews that we get this egotistical idea that we all have a personal guardian angel assigned to us.  But of course we don’t.  With all three of our Gods watching over us 24/7, we hardly need the protection of created beings.  But how typical it is for us to discount the Presence of our Gods while we pray to our guardian angels (see Angel Q&A).  Yes, our Gods do find it offensive when we crank out the angel pins and statues and engage in this idolatrous worship of beings who we know nothing about.  The author of Psalm 91 was hardly pleasing God when he declared that Yahweh commands His angels to constantly watch over us.  But have you ever bothered to ask God about the validity of the Psalm 91 promises, or are you just accepting whatever your ego wants to hear with no concern about how it insults your Gods?  We Christians need to do a far better job of respecting the jealous Nature of our Creators by ceasing with this idolatrous awe of created beings (see How God Wants Us to Relate to Four Kinds of Beings).  Who even cares about angels when we know the Almighty Gods?

Since Rhoda won’t give it a rest, someone finally decides to go and look.  Meanwhile, there’s Peter: banging on the gate and no doubt panicking that one of Agrippa’s thugs will see him and haul him away again.

Meanwhile, Peter continued knocking. When they finally opened the door and saw him, they were amazed. He motioned for them to quiet down and told them how the Lord had led him out of prison. “Tell James and the other brothers what happened,” he said. And then he went to another place.

At dawn there was a great commotion among the soldiers about what had happened to Peter. Herod Agrippa ordered a thorough search for him. When he couldn’t be found, Herod interrogated the guards and sentenced them to death. Afterward Herod left Judea to stay in Caesarea [sess-uh-REE-uh] for a while. (Acts 12:16-19)

The fact that Peter specifically names James indicates that James has a lot of clout, and this is probably the James who wrote the epistle of James, which we discussed in our last lesson.   Peter then leaves town under the cover of night, and when morning comes, the soldiers who were left in charge of Peter are in big trouble with Agrippa.  Rome had no patience for slack jail keepers, so to help soldiers stay awake on a job that was as dull as dirt, there was a rule that any soldier who let a prisoner escape would be executed.  Here Agrippa upholds the same policy with his men, and the guards who were responsible for Peter get killed.  Agrippa then leaves town to go put some distance between himself and this very embarrassing stunt that has made him look weak.  When you’re a ruler, it’s all about maintaining a strong public image.

THE DEATH OF HEROD AGRIPPA

Now in our last lesson, we learned how Agrippa won the favor of Roman Emperor Claudius, and Claudius has rewarded Agrippa with a nice chunk of territory for Agrippa to play king over.  Of course Agrippa is still a servant of Rome, but locally he’s considered to be big stuff.  Since being feared is a critical part of maintaining control as a leader, Agrippa can’t afford to tolerate rebellion.  So when the major port cities of Tyre [TIRE] and Sidon [SIGH-don] get on his bad side, they know that Agrippa has the power to really mess them up.  We don’t know what Tyre and Sidon did to rile Agrippa up, but it seems he is threatening to cut off supplies to them because they now send a group of representatives to try and appease him.

Now Herod was very angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon. So they sent a delegation to make peace with him because their cities were dependent upon Herod’s country for food. The delegates won the support of Blastus [BLASS-tuss], Herod’s personal assistant, and through him an appointment with Herod was granted. When the day arrived, Herod put on his royal robes, sat on his throne, and made a speech to them. The people gave him a great ovation, shouting, “It’s the voice of a god, not of a man!” (Acts 12:20-22)

This would be a speech in which Agrippa is announcing reconciliation between his kingdom and the anxious cities of Tyre and Sidon.  As the keeper of the food, Agrippa has all of the power in this situation, and that means the folks from Tyre and Sidon are going to pour it on thick when he announces that’s he’s willing to reopen the supply lines to them.  What higher compliment is there than to call a man divine?  So they start oozing over Agrippa as if he is a god.  The Roman Empire was in a habit of deifying its emperors after they were deceased, and then worshiping them post mortem much as we Christians worship saints today.  Herod’s ego certainly likes this god talk, and yet the man claims to be a follower of Judaism, which means he’s supposed to be worshiping Yahweh as the only true God.  Yahweh says He’s very jealous in Nature and that He detests humans exalting themselves.  Yahweh doesn’t like this god talk.

At once an angel of Yahweh struck Herod because he did not give the glory to Yahweh, and he became infected with worms and died. (Acts 12:23)

Death by worms sounds like a gruesome way to go, but then again, Herod knew better than to sit there basking in glory.  How do we know?  Because we know that Yahweh is a very gracious Judge who does not punish people for not knowing something He never taught them.  You see, once you have an accurate understanding of God’s Character, you can fill in a lot of the details yourself—you don’t need to have them all spelled out for you.  If Yahweh’s mad, He has good reason to be.

Now in our last lesson, we learned that a prophet predicted that a great famine was going to hit the empire.  That famine has come, and Paul and Barnabas [BAR-nuh-bus] have traveled down to Jerusalem from Antioch to give the Christian Jews in Jerusalem a big monetary donation that will help them through the hard times.  After handing the cash over to the appropriate parties, Barnabas and Paul return to Antioch, taking along a fellow named John Mark.

JOHN MARK, Nephew of Barnabas & The Author of Mark

In Lesson 77, we learned that it was common in this time for Jews in the Roman Empire to go by two different names: a Jewish name and a Roman name.  Such is the case with this John Mark fellow who Luke refers to in Acts 12.  John is the Jewish name, Mark is the Roman name.  Luke will refer to him by both names, which is confusing, and Paul and Peter will also mention this Mark in their writings.  To keep things clear in our study, we’ll refer to this fellow as John Mark so we can distinguish him from the John who was one of the twelve.

John Mark is the nephew of Barnabas, and he’s also believed to be the author of the Gospel of Mark.  His mother’s name is Mary, which was another very common Jewish name, so John Mark’s mother was not the same woman as Jesus’ mother.  John Mark will accompany Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary trip, which is coming right up.  But we’re not all cut out for extensive travel, nor do we all have the chops to keep persevering when things get tough.  At some point, John Mark is going to hit his limit with the stress, call it quits, and head home.  Paul will view this as an outrageous desertion, and he’ll hold a grudge about it to the point that he and Barnabas will part ways when Barnabas insists on giving his nephew a second chance at missionary work.  Such is the way with Paul—he can hold grudges and still claim to be a sinless new creation in Christ, but if anyone else gets carnal, they’re obviously not saved.

Well, eventually Paul will get over himself and later references demonstrate that he and John Mark are on good terms.  John Mark will also spend a lot of time with Peter, and it’s commonly believed that the Gospel of Mark is largely a collection of Peter’s personal memories.  Not one of the original twelve, John Mark was not around for many of the events he records in his Gospel, and some of the things he records (like the Transfiguration) could only be told to him by Peter, John, or the James who Agrippa just killed.  Accounts like Peter’s denial of Christ could only be told by Peter, since the rest of the twelve had already deserted by that point (a fact which we choose to ignore while we harp on Peter’s failing).

PAUL’S FIRST MISSION TRIP
COMPANIONS: Barnabas & John Mark
LAUNCHING POINT: The Church in Antioch
FIRST DESTINATION: The Island of Cyprus

It was likely Uncle Barnabas’ idea for John Mark to come along when Barnabas and Paul head back up to Antioch to decide what their next move ought to be.  The church in Antioch seems decently established, so why not branch out?  Paul is a born salesman, and Barnabas also seems eager to travel, so after the leaders in the church go through the pretense of seeking God’s will, someone gets a “word” that Yahweh wants Paul and Barnabas to strike out on their first official mission trip.

Among the prophets and teachers of the church at Antioch of Syria were Barnabas, Simeon [SIMM-e-un] (who was called Niger, which means “the black man”), Lucius [LOO-she-uss] (from Cyrene [si-REEN]), Manaen [man-NAY-en] (the childhood companion of King Herod Antipas [ANN-tih-puss]), and Saul. One day as these men were worshiping Yahweh and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Appoint Barnabas and Saul for the special work to which I have called them.” So after more fasting and prayer, the men laid their hands on them and sent them on their way. (Acts 13:1-3)

We learned about Herod Antipas back in Lesson 45.  He was the ruler or tetrarch of Galilee.  Antipas was the guy who had John the Baptist beheaded.  Since John the Baptist was pro-Jesus, why would Manaen want people to know that he was a friend of Antipas?  Because Antipas was a somebody, even if he was a crumb who ended up banished by Emperor Caligula.  By now, Herod Antipas is out of the picture, but claiming to have known him back in the day still impresses people so Luke jots down that this Manaen fellow in Antioch was chums with Antipas.  Ah, the carnality of the early Church.

Now there are two Antiochs in the Roman Empire, so Luke says Antioch of Syria to clarify which Antioch he’s talking about.  On this mission trip, Paul and Barnabas will first travel to the nearby island of Cyprus, then they’ll come back to the mainland and end up back in Galatia—the region where Paul has already been at work establishing churches.  We learned about Paul’s letter to the Galatians in our last lesson.  Now let’s look at a map of where he, Barnabas, and John Mark will travel on this first mission trip:

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Now Luke tells us that it was the Holy Spirit who spoke to the leaders in Antioch.  But how does Luke know this?  He’s just believing what the leaders said.  Should we do the same?  Well, given what a phony Paul is, and how loosely the term believer is being used here in Acts, we really don’t have good reason to trust any of these people.

Consider how things work in the world of church planting today.  Very often these ventures are entirely flesh led.  We decide that it would be nice to expand the reaches of our denomination, so we look for a logical geographical target and go for it.  Of course we say that the whole thing was God’s idea, but in real life, we are rarely seeking God’s opinion.  It’s more like we decide what we want to do and we expect God to bless it.

Here in Antioch, we’ve got bulldog Paul who is quite eager to expand his kingdom. We learned in our last lesson that Paul was treated like quite the hero when he was last in Galatia. He’s since received word that his reputation is getting tarnished. Naturally he’s going to be anxious to get back there and reestablish his rule.  Then there’s Barnabas, who is clearly enamored with the domineering Paul.  Does anyone have a better idea of what to do?  Not really.  So the leaders can fast and pray all day, but we all know that in the end these people are going to just do what they want to do.

Remember that to these Jews, the Holy Spirit was just an alternate title for Yahweh (see Lesson 71).  So here in Antioch, the leaders are just signing off on what Paul wants to do and acting like the whole thing was really Yahweh’s idea.  Well, no, we’re just not buying it.  So far these people have shown very poor discernment in spiritual matters, and the fact that they think they need to fast to get God to talk to them is just one more indicator of how immature they are (see All About Fasting).  Fasting was a very manipulative ploy for ancient Jews, just as it is for us today.  God hears you the first time you say something to Him, and He speaks when He’s ready to speak.  So there’s no need for repeating yourself over and over as if God is hard of hearing.  And there’s no need to skip meals as a means of trying to impress God with your devotion.  God assesses your commitment to Him by what’s happening in your soul, not by how much food is currently in your GI tract.  The fact that we ever tried to associate not eating with our soul communication with God is absurd, but there it is.  Today we just keep recycling the foolishness of ancient Jews, and like them, many of us are just stagnating in faithless delusions.

Notice how vague this supposed word from God is: “Appoint Barnabas and Saul for the special work to which I have called them.”  What is that supposed to mean?  When God wants us to do something, He is specific.  He doesn’t just give vague orders.  All these leaders in Antioch are doing is expressing their support of Paul and Barnabas.  Well, of course they’re going to support Paul—the man is an alpha personality.  Plus he’s a Pharisee, and Pharisees were the spiritual superstars of Israel.  Imagine if you were at a church where some world famous evangelist or popular pastor said, “I want to go back to my old stomping grounds and establish more churches there.”  What are you going to say—“No”?  Of course not.  You’ll say, “Yeah, great.  Clearly that’s what God wants.”  Exchanges like these are nothing more than us tossing God’s Name into a session of backslapping.

So Barnabas and Saul were sent out by the Holy Spirit. They went down to the seaport of Seleucia [seh-LOO-see-uh] and then sailed for the island of Cyprus. There, in the town of Salamis [SALL-luh-miss], they went to the Jewish synagogues and preached the word of Yahweh. John Mark went with them as their assistant. (Acts 13:4-5)

Notice how these guys head right for the Jewish synagogues when they come to town.  What was that about Paul being “called” to the Gentiles while Peter handled the Jews?  Paul’s calling changes with his current agenda.  As a Pharisee, the Jews are who he has automatic clout with, so it’s strategic for him to start with the synagogues.  As we learned in Lesson 42, it was the Pharisees who first started the tradition of synagogues in Israel.  These were meetings in which only Jewish men were invited to come and discuss spiritual matters.  Of course the religion being discussed in such meetings was always Judaism, and guys who attended such meetings regularly would be quite familiar with the idea of Yahweh promising to send a Messiah to save Israel.  When Paul arrives, all he has to do is announce that the Messiah has come to grab the attention of his fellow countrymen.

THE FALSE PROPHET IN PAPHOS (The 1st Mission Trip: Cyprus)

Afterward they traveled from town to town across the entire island until finally they reached Paphos [PAY-foss], where they met a Jewish sorcerer, a false prophet named Bar-Jesus. He had attached himself to the governor, Sergius Paulus [SIR-jee-us  PAWL-us], who was an intelligent man. The governor (or proconsul) invited Barnabas and Saul to visit him, for he wanted to hear the word of Yahweh. But Elymas [ell-EE-muss], the sorcerer (as his name means in Greek), interfered and urged the governor to pay no attention to what Barnabas and Saul said. He was trying to keep the governor from believing. (Acts 13:6-8)

THE ORIGIN OF THE NAME JESUS

No one in Bible times used the name Jesus that we use today.  The hard J sound did not exist in the Hebrew, Greek or Latin languages, so where you see Js in biblical names today, that letter would have had a Y sound.  Jesus’ Jewish parents called Him by the common Jewish name of Yeshua, which was a shortened version of the older Hebrew name of Yehoshua.  The Greek form of Yeshua would be pronounced Yesous (the Greeks didn’t have a sh sound).  The Greek form became Jesus or Iesus in Latin (both forms are pronounced YAY-soos).  In modern English Bibles, we use the Latin spelling and add a hard J sound to get JEE-suss.  So the Jesus name you see in your Bible today didn’t come into use until around the 17th century AD.  In Bible times, Yeshua was a very common name, and there are Yeshuas running around all throughout the Old and New Testaments. In Acts 13, this false prophet would have been known as Bar-Yeshua to his Jewish pals, which would mean “the son of Yeshua.”  Is he claiming to be a son of the same Jesus who the Christians are promoting?  No.  The name Bar-Jesus just means this guy’s dad’s name was also Jesus. It was common for Jewish men to call themselves Bar-something.  Parentage was a big deal in a culture that was so obsessed with ancestry.

PAUL vs. BAR-JESUS aka ELYMAS

Now what happens here in Paphos is that a political bigshot extends a personal invitation to Paul and Barnabas to talk with him at his home.  Sergius Paulus is a proconsul—which means he is governor of a whole Roman province.  It would be quite a feat for Paul and Barnabas to score a proconsul so early on in their first venture.  But the pesky Bar-Jesus (whose Greek name is Elymas) keeps getting in the way.  No doubt Elymas is worried about competition.  He’s already got the governor’s ear, and he doesn’t want these two new Jewish bigshots messing up the social perks he’s currently enjoying by being on the governor’s A list.

Saul, also known as Paul, was filled with the Holy Spirit, and he looked the sorcerer in the eye. Then he said, “You son of the devil, full of every sort of deceit and fraud, and enemy of all that is good! Will you never stop perverting the true ways of Yahweh? Watch now, for Yahweh has laid His hand of punishment upon you, and you will be struck blind. You will not see the sunlight for some time.” Instantly mist and darkness came over the man’s eyes, and he began groping around begging for someone to take his hand and lead him.

When the governor saw what had happened, he became a believer, for he was astonished at the teaching about the Lord. (Acts 13:9-12)

Miracles always impress, and when God strikes Elymas blind, it effectively hushes him up.  But wait—why is God making Paul look good here when Paul is such a rebellious twerp?  Because the governor is probably a sincere seeker and this miracle is for his sake.  Don’t fall for the common trap of limiting the ability of our Gods.  They’ve been using spiritual rebels to lead souls to truth since the very beginning.  When Governor Sergius sees this miracle done in the Name of Yahweh, he’s going to view Yahweh as a powerful God.  When Paul then starts talking about a Messiah who Yahweh wants everyone to respect, Sergius is going to give that message serious thought.  Sure, Paul will humanize Christ and mangle the truth, but the Holy Spirit will sort things out for Sergius when the man sincerely seeks God in his soul.

LOOKING AHEAD

After the big score with Governor Sergius, Paul and Barnabas hop on a boat and sail to the mainland.  Now they’re closing in on Galatia, where Paul really wants to be.  But first they reach a second Antioch—Antioch of Pisidia [pih-SIH-dee-uh]—where Paul delivers a long sermon that is peppered with Old Testament quotations.  Some are relevant, some aren’t.  In our next lesson, we’ll pinpoint the misapplications and bad theology so that you can sharpen those discernment skills and learn to stop being so impressed with this book which is formally known as The Acts of the Apostles.

UP NEXT: Know Your Bible Lesson 81: Trouble in Antioch

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