Acts 20.

PAUL HEADED FOR JERUSALEM.

DISCOURSE TO THE ELDERS OF EPHESUS

 

Since waters at Ephesus were stirring, and since he had stayed there long enough, Paul went on his way to Macedonia and to actual Greece. He then wanted to sail to reach Antioch directly by sea, but the hostile Jews were waiting for him at the port and so he was forced to stretch the route, going by land to Macedonia (v. 3), with an unforeseen delay that he had to make up for later, in order to be in Jerusalem for Pentecost.
Italian parents want to spend Christmas with their children and their children usually please them that way. Similarly, God wanted every Israelite to go to “his house”, that is, to the Temple in Jerusalem, three times a year, one of which was at Pentecost (as we have seen in commentary 2:1): that is why Paul, since he continued to live as a Jew, did everything possible to be in Jerusalem on that day, renouncing to pass through Ephesus (v. 16).
On his journey, Paul was accompanied by seven collaborators from five different churches (vv. 4-5); this goes to show Paul’s strategy, which can be summarised in three stages: 1) generalised proclamation of the Gospel; 2) return in later times for a strengthening of the disciples; 3) selection of people suitable to remain close to him and who could then continue the work. A strategy basically similar to that of Jesus: and how could it be otherwise?
Despite a certain haste, as a good Jew, Paul lets Passover (Unleavened Bread) end before returning to his journey (v. 6).
In verse 7 we begin with the account of an episode that took place «on the first day of the week, while we were gathered together to break bread». It seemed clear to me that this was the so-called “Lord’s Supper”, not only in remembrance of his death, but above all of his resurrection, which took place on the «first day of the week» (Jn 20:1-19), that is, on the day after the Sabbath and which we now call Sunday. Some comments of a friend, however, have led me to better frame this episode, which fits into the question of the relationship between the Jewish Sabbath and Christian Sunday: a complex question, on which we will dwell in Further Insight No. 11 right below.
In commenting on 19:1-5 we have already mentioned, and will not dwell further, the parallels between the resurrection of the young man by Paul (v. 10) and the resurrection of Tabetha by Peter (Acts 9:40).
Paul began to teach «until daybreak» (v. 11), and it was not an exception (cf. v. 31). It is then understood that he had little time to reflect on himself, despite needing it a lot, because he perceived an uncertain future, in which there would still be «imprisonment and afflictions» (v. 23). Perhaps it is precisely to reflect calmly that he chose to make a stretch of road on foot, sending the others by sea (vv. 13-14).

But he considered it important to see for one last time the elders of Ephesus and then he sent for them, addressing them with a very dense and moving speech, on which, however, we must limit ourselves only to a few details. Paul announced that they would never see him again (v. 25) and therefore entrusted them «to God and to the Word of his grace» (v. 32); I was struck by the comment of Cardinal Martini, who stressed that it is the Church that is entrusted to the Word of God, not vice versa. Paul had no illusions and saw before him a degeneration of the Church that makes us think of the farewell words spoken by Moses to the elders of Israel (Deuteronomy 31:28-29).
Those themselves called first «elders» (v. 17) in reference to their position as government of the community, are then called «bishops» (v. 28) in reference to their function as overseers: there was, nonetheless, no clear distinction between elders (or presbyters, from which we derive priests) and bishops, because there was no institution above the local church, even though some brothers (the Twelve Apostles first of all, but not only them) were highly esteemed and, like Paul, performed a more general service as well as more transitional. We go no further in examining this discourse, but we invite you to read it and reread it with great attention (vv. 17-38).
We quickly note other “hints” on the divinity of Jesus, even if Acts does not put it in the foreground. One is given by this expression of Paul: «testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ» (v. 21). The invitation to «to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood» (v. 28) is also significant.

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Further Insight n. 11

IS IT NECESSARY TO OBSERVE THE SABBATH OR THE SUNDAY?

 

Almost everyone is convinced that the last day of the week is Sunday and therefore Monday would be the first. A minimum of investigation, however, is enough to understand that the seventh day of the week is Saturday and therefore Sunday is the first day of the new week. This widespread error arose because of the license that Christianity took to replace the Sabbath with Sunday: a license that tastes like manipulation of the Bible and which any scholar realises, but from which almost no one returns. “Almost” nobody, because in reality there are some (mostly the Adventists) who wanted to restore the Sabbath as a day of rest and worship, but also on this choice we will express some perplexity.
The “seventh day” is already mentioned at the beginning of the Bible and the interpretation of that first mentioning conditions all the vision that is developed later, including the current one. In Genesis 2:3 it is written, «So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation». One is easily led to think that the institution of the Sabbath takes place in Genesis already, which would therefore concern all humanity and not only the people of Israel.
Looking more closely, however, in Genesis it is said that God rested, not that he commanded man to rest, and therefore in Genesis we find a basis for the eventual fourth commandment, not the commandment itself. This interpretation finds decisive confirmation in the fact that before Moses we find no example of Sabbath observance. We are told many things about Noah, Job, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, but we are not told that any of them kept the Sabbath. For Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, then, there is a decisive argument: they cared for large flocks of sheep, which necessitated pasturing every day and, in some periods, even milking every day!
If one accepts that the Sabbath was specifically given to Israel, the question of its observance in the New Testament is quite simple. Since Jesus was born a Jew, was circumcised on the eighth day and then presented at the Temple (Luke 2:21-22), since he lived as a Jew among Jews and died as a Jew, in the Gospels there is no “overcoming” of the Sabbath observance. It is true that many mistake Jesus’ criticism of the way the Pharisees observe the Sabbath as if he taught the abolition of that commandment (Mt 12:1-14), but it is the usual “anti-Jewish interpretation of the New Testament” which has no serious foundation: in fact, Jesus challenges the Pharisees not by declaring the overcoming of Moses, but by quoting the Old Testament, with the Gospel in which we find, at the end, “pious women” who go to the tomb at dawn on the first day of the week, that is, after having scrupulously observed the Sabbath, as evidently encouraged by their Master (Jn 20:1).

Even the birth of the Church took place in a strictly Jewish environment and, before Cornelius (Acts 10), you could not be baptised if you were not already circumcised. The Jews who received the preaching of the apostles continued to, «day by day, attending the temple together», be perceived as fully Jews to the point of enjoying the favour «of all the people» (Acts 2:46-47).
It is quite a different matter for Cornelius (Acts 10), who is the first case of a baptised person without being circumcised and to whom the observance of the law of Moses is certainly not then imposed; the new situation that came to be created the apostles discussed later (Acts 15) and, among the requests made to the Gentiles who have become Christians, there is no observance of the Sabbath.
Unfortunately, we often refuse to acknowledge that in the New Testament there are TWO WAYS of living faith in Christ: either as Jews or as non-Jews. When you want to forcibly seek THE WAY taught by the New Testament you end up privileging one at the expense of the other; or you make a mixture of contradictory elements and that, thus, makes little sense.
The TWO WAYS are clearly taught by Paul: «One person believes he may eat anything, while the [other] weak person eats only vegetables», «One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind» (Rom 14:2,5). And again, «Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath» (Col 2:16).
Christian worship is therefore not bound to a specific day, but the time when to do so falls within the field of freedom: it is therefore not obligatory to do so on the Sabbath, but neither forbidden. What is instead forbidden is to take the freedom to move the Saturday to the next day (Christian Sunday) or the day before (Muslim Friday).

 

It is true that in the New Testament there are two references to the “first day of the week” (Acts 20:7 and 1 Cor 16:2) and I have long thought that they were a sign of the consolidation of a praxis (certainly not of a law given by the apostles). But then I was offered an internal explanation of Judaism that it’s also consistent in the general context of the New Testament: I now report the two passages above, being followed by the explanation of Argentino Quintavalle. In any case, whatever interpretation is given to the two passages, they do not fix any rule and therefore the rule of freedom set out earlier remains valid.
In Acts 20:7 we read, «On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight».
Argentino Quintavalle: The way in which the Jews have always observed the Sabbath for centuries, and which they maintain even today, is that the day begins on Friday evening at sunset with the lighting of candles, a prayer and the meal. The Sabbath ends with a special service called “separation”, which serves to distinguish the holy Sabbath (the seventh day) from the other six days of the week. This service begins at sunset on Saturday and includes prayer followed by a meal. The above verse explains that Paul and the believers had gathered for their regular Sabbath meeting and were breaking bread for the closing of the Sabbath. Since they were already gathered and Paul would leave the following day (Sunday), he continued to speak until midnight, remaining there until dawn on Sunday, when he left for the next phase of his journey (Assos)».
In 1 Corinthians 16:2 we read, « On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.».
Argentino Quintavalle: Neither meeting nor holy supper is spoken of here. The first day of the week was the first day after the Sabbath and in which, even before spending for themselves, the Jews had to set aside that which was to be given on the next Sabbath. First, they decided the amount to give and then they set it aside, because if they had waited for the end of the week, they would have given only what was left».
It is perfectly possible to do on Sundays what is commanded for the Jews on the Sabbath day, provided that this is not sold as obedience to the fourth commandment. If the substitution of Saturday with Sunday is arbitrary, why was it effected and is it still maintained? The reason is all too well known and goes back to Constantine (4th century), when Christianity came to power and took de facto possession of vast imperial territories, with the connected strategy of bringing to completion a clear separation from Judaism, not only of Jesus, but of the entire New Testament.

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Further Insight n. 12

SUMMARY OF THE PARALLELISMS BETWEEN PETER AND PAUL

 

Luke clearly wants to highlight Paul’s parallels with Peter, to show that Paul has a substantial authority that is not inferior to that of Peter. Therefore, Luke not only reports several similar facts, but often brings out the resemblance in the manner he reports these facts as well. For example, in recounting that Paul heals a «cripple from birth» after «looking intently at him» (14:8-9), Luke uses the same quoted words previously used for Peter (3:4-6).

 

n Topic Paul Peter Notes
1 Directly commissioned by Jesus 9:15; others 1:8; others 1
2 Against the sorcerers Elymas and Simon 13:10 8:18-24  
3 Preaching to the Jews based on Old T. 13:17-41 3:12-26  
4 By grace alone, Greeks and Jews 13:39; 16:31 15:7-11 2
5 Healing of a cripple 14:8-9 3:4-6 3
6 Beat with rods 16:22 5:40  
7 Miraculous escape from prison 16:25-26 12:7-10  
8 Simple message and baptism 16:31 10:38-48 4
9 Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands 19:6 8:15 5
10 Miraculousness of the person itself 19:11-12 5:15 6
11 Young resurrected (Eutychus and Tabitha) 20:9-10 9:40  

 

 

NOTES.
1. It is first in the Gospels that we see how Peter was indicated by Jesus as the leader of the disciples (e.g. Mt 10:2; Luke 22:32; Jn 21:15-17), then the first five chapters of Acts are an applied confirmation. With respect to all this, Paul is totally external, and so here Luke emphasises that Paul, even though in another way, was given a mission directly by Jesus, who appeared to him several times (9:5,15; 18:9-10; 22:17-21; 23:11; 26:14-18); the centrality for Luke of Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the way to Damascus can be seen in the fact that it is narrated three times (9:1-22; 22:3-20; 26:9-20).
2. Peter’s words in Acts 15:7-11 represent the plan put in action by Paul: this is seen not only in the whole of the book of Acts, but even more so in the Epistle to the Romans and in that to the Galatians.
3. For parallelism in language, see the paragraph above the table.
4. Paul’s simple message to the jailer of Philippi, who is then immediately baptised, is justified in Peter’s behaviour with Cornelius (but also in that of Philip with the eunuch, 8:26-39).
5. Certain disciples of John receive the Holy Spirit by the laying on of Paul’s hands (19:6). Before that episode, it seemed that only Peter and John were given this option (8:15).
6. That Peter’s shadow itself was miraculous (5:15) is an extreme limit, as extreme is the fact that even the handkerchiefs touched by Paul became miraculous (19:11-12).