Tag Archives: Acts 2

Community Snapshot: Lessons from Acts 2:42-4:31

Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour.

Acts 3:1 (ESV)

At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.”

Acts 10:1-3 (ESV)

The disciples devoted themselves to “the prayers.” “Luke’s reference to ‘prayers’ rather than to prayer per se here may indicate observance of regular prayer times in the Temple – as well as the community’s own prayers.” (see Le Cornu and Shulam, “A Commentary on the Jewish Roots of Acts: Acts 1-15, 147.”) Most English versions obscure the meaning by not transmitting the definite article. The Greek says that they devoted themselves to “the prayers (tais proseuchais).”

“The prayers” should be understood in keeping with the common liturgical, daily prayers of Judaism, the synagogue, and the Temple. Six verses later, Luke depicts Simon Peter and John “going up to the temple at the ninth hour, the hour of prayer” (Acts 3:1).

This does not mean that early believers prayed out of a Siddur. Prayer books did not yet exist. It only implies that they prayed in concert with other Jewish people, following the same forms, conventions, modes, and times of prayer as the rest of the Jewish world. Their faith in Yeshua (Jesus) did not change their mode of worship. Their faith made their worship more intense and ardent.

Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)
Torah Portion Lech Lecha (“Go forth”) (pg 63)
Commentary on Acts 2:42-4:31

In my previous meditation about the Torah Club commentary on Acts, I tried to explain a couple of things. Based on Acts 2, I illustrated that those who were at the Shavuot (Pentecost) festival, and the 3,000 who received the Holy Spirit in Christ’s name, were all Jewish. Coupling what we read in Acts 2 with this week’s study of Acts 2:42-4:31, we can see that the very early days of “Christianity” with Peter and John in Jerusalem involved a completely Jewish religious community. In fact, this portion of Acts is devoted to the description of the early Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah in the weeks and months after his ascension.

I’m choosing to focus on that aspect of Jewish community involving “the prayers” for a couple of reasons. One is the obvious point that nothing about the practice of the Jewish disciples changed in the slightest because they were disciples of the Jewish Jesus. They still observed “the prayers” at the set times for prayer. They prayed together with other Jews, both disciples of the Master and any others who had gathered together, seemingly in the part of the Jerusalem Temple known as Solomon’s Portico.

However, you will notice that I again insert something from Acts 10 about the Roman Centurion Cornelius, the God-fearer, who at the beginning of that chapter, had not yet received the Christ; the Messiah, as Lord and Savior. And yet, he was praying at the ninth hour which was “the hour of prayer,” just as the Jews did, including Peter and John.

I also said in my previous missive that the non-Jewish God-fearers and later, the non-Jewish disciples of Jesus indeed took on some (or many) of the Jewish religious practices in order to imitate their mentors and in fact, at that point in history, the “Jewish model” for worshiping God was the only model available. This didn’t make Cornelius or any of the Gentile disciples suddenly Jewish or automatically obligated to a full Jewish lifestyle (otherwise, Paul wouldn’t have thrown such a “temper tantrum” in Galatians 5:1-5). However, it does mean that “Christian” worship looked a lot more Jewish, even after the first non-Jews began to be admitted as disciples, than we could ever imagine it being today.

I suppose that I’ll have a lot more material on Cornelius and the first non-Jewish “Christians” when I actually arrive at the Torah Club’s commentary on Acts 10 (which won’t happen for another six weeks or so) but I want to point out, for those of you reading this who may not already know, the discipleship under Jesus Christ for the early Jewish and Gentile believers did not entail some abrupt demarcation from what otherwise was considered “normal” Jewish religious practice. As D. Thomas Lancaster points out in this week’s study (pp. 61-62):

Notice that each of the four devotions (The Apostles’ Teaching, Fellowship, Breaking of Bread, and the Prayers) are hallmarks of Jewish practice. The new community that formed around the disciples of Yeshua did not adopt new customs or innovations that could be considered particularly Christian and distinct from Judaism. Instead, they devoted themselves to the same pursuits that might characterize any Jewish faith community. Today’s churches and communities of faith would look more like messianic synagogues if we committed ourselves to the four devotions of study, community, hospitality, and liturgy.

That recalls a question I asked not too long ago. Do Christians Practice Judaism? As we understand the concepts today, the answer must be “no.” However, as the “Messianic faith” began as a wholly Jewish expression of discipleship under the Master, what were the very first Gentiles doing when they were brought into discipleship with the Jews? For that matter, what did Cornelius think he was doing when he, as a God-fearer, prayed at the ninth hour and (presumably, though we can’t know for sure) gathered with the Jews in synagogue on Shabbat? Practicing Judaism?

Well, probably not, anymore than a modern-day Noahide could be said to be practicing Judaism by davening with Jews in a synagogue on Shabbat. But is the relationship between a Noahide and a Jew in the 21st century the same as that of a “Messianic” Jew and non-Jew in the mid-1st century? Noahides generally see themselves as bound by the covenant of Noah (see Genesis 9), while Jews claim the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and New Covenants, so strictly speaking, they are unlike members of God’s community, attached to God by different covenants.

I’ve said before that I believe we Christians have a relationship with God due to certain blessings included in the Abrahamic and New Covenants but that we are not attached to all of the same conditions within those covenants. Further, it is my belief (because there’s no evidence directly involving non-Jews) that we are not recipients of any blessings from the Mosaic covenant, which more than any of the other covenants, specifically identifies the Jewish people as a unique covenant people, even within the Messianic community of the 1st century and of the budding Messianic Jewish community of the 21st century.

But let’s wind back to the very early chapters of Acts again and take a look at the community as it existed after that first fateful Shavuot when the Spirit was given.

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Acts 2:42-47 (ESV)

Here we see some of what Lancaster called “the devotions,” namely teaching/studying and fellowship through breaking of bread (which is just as it sounds, eating together, rather than some special sacrament). This passage is also sometimes referred to as “Christian Communism,” since everyone “re-distributed wealth” so that everyone shared everything. This brings up a point I want to make, not only about this passage but about the larger issue of community.

There are some who would isolate this part of the second chapter of Acts and say it’s the only way a Christian community should be run, and if any other Christians are “hoarding” material wealth for themselves through private ownership of a car, house, and so on, they are in violation of their Christian faith.

But we’re only talking about five verses in a single chapter of the Bible. Who develops an entire theology and Christian lifestyle based on a tiny handful of verses taken out of context?

Actually, quite a lot of people. I tend to think of Christians and Christian groups who insist on cherry picking verses to fit some arcane theology as “on the fringe” and I hope they are indeed in the minority, because it’s a dangerous practice. Focusing on just little bits and pieces of the Bible in an attempt to justify a “pet theology” and then to “sell” it to a wider audience as some form of “scholarship” is not only dishonest but potentially misleading to people who may actually believe it for lack of any better insights on their part.

Let’s take another example from Lancaster’s commentary. He defines the early Jewish Messianic community in terms of the larger context of 1st century Judaism in Jerusalem and Roman occupied Palestine. Let’s keep in mind that there was no one, monolithic Judaism then, anymore than there is one now (that goes for Christianity too, by the way). There were differing sects of Judaism and the sect that became known as “the Way” was what we see as the early Jewish disciples of Jesus in the beginning chapters of Acts. They were Jewish. They behaved in a way that was considered acceptable relative to Jewish religious and lifestyle practices. Except for their insistence that the man from Nazareth named Yeshua was indeed the Messiah, and that he was unjustly executed and three days later, rose from the dead, their Jewish lives and teachings wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow from any other Jew in the Holy Land.

Can we take a “snapshot” of their lives as we see them lived out in Acts 2 and 3 and say that’s how we Christians should live today? Is it any more valid to say that than to say that we must live a Christian lifestyle that exactly mirrors Acts 2:42-47? Probably not. It fails to take a great deal into consideration.

If the 1st century Jewish disciples of Jesus lived a lifestyle that was completely consistent with their Jewish peers and their surrounding Jewish culture, does that translate into a bunch of non-Jewish Christians in the 21st century doing the same thing? Remember, for the most part, Peter, John, and the rest of the disciples didn’t appear particularly unusual as they prayed at the ninth our in Solomon’s Portico. They didn’t appear particularly unusual as they met together to study the teachings of their Master. They didn’t appear particularly unusual when they met together for communal meals. Lots and lots of different groups of Jewish disciples of one Rabbi or another behaved in very similar ways.

But that wouldn’t necessarily translate to Christians twenty centuries later any more than it would translate to modern Jews. Our situations have changed drastically and on top of that, we don’t have a complete picture of what the early Messianic Jewish communities looked like. We can extrapolate based on whatever knowledge we possess of wider Jewish practices in the late Second Temple era, but we have even less knowledge of “normal” Christian practices among the newly minted Gentile disciples post-Acts 10. How could we ever figure out, assuming our goal was to imitate some portion of 1st century worship behaviors, how to replicate what that community (or those communities if we assume that once early non-Jewish churches were founded, their practices began to vary from those of the Jewish disciples in the synagogues) did way back in the first weeks, months, and years after the ascension of Jesus?

We can’t, at least not to a high degree of reliability and detail. What we can do is take what we understand of some of the general principles we see lived out and match them up with some of Christ’s teachings within a larger Biblical context and figure out some foundational points with which to connect.

Meeting together? Don’t we do that now? Don’t we have churches? Don’t we have home Bible studies? Don’t we serve food and eat together? Don’t we study together? Don’t we pray together?

Didn’t I just cover Lancaster’s four devotions in the previous paragraph?

Nothing in what we’ve seen in the first chapters of Acts necessarily tells us that the Gentile disciples (who didn’t exist during that time frame) where to behave exactly like their Jewish counterparts. It does tell us that the early Jewish disciples behaved very consistently with the Jewish religious and cultural practices in which they lived. Those Jews believed Jesus Christ was the Messiah and yet there was nothing at all to say that they ever stopped being Jews, stopped making sacrifices at the Temple, stopped celebrating the traditional festivals, stopped keeping kosher, stopped observing the Shabbat, stopped…you know what I’m getting at.

In the days when the Second Temple still stood and after the ascension of Christ, there was nothing to show us that the so-called “Jewish Christians” stopped being Jewish and started being “Christian” as we understand the term today.

But while I’m content to table what the later (from an Acts 3 point of view) Gentile disciples were supposed to do within what appears to be a wholly Jewish religious arena (I know I just left this question hanging, but I’ll pick it up again in subsequent studies of Acts via Torah Club), can we say that if the ancient Jewish disciples of the Master lived completely Jewish lifestyles and those lifestyles were totally consistent with their discipleship under Jesus Christ, could the same be true for the modern Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah?

Most of my regular readers (the ones who typically comment, anyway), already know that answer. But some of you, especially if you’re just surfing in here, may be a bit surprised. Food for thought.

Noah, Moses, and Peter: Lessons from Acts 2

Receiving the SpiritFor the disciples of the Master, Shavuot already carried extra significance as the fiftieth day since His resurrection. He was the first fruits of the resurrection. The disciples and followers of Yeshua were themselves the first fruits of His labor. On Shavuot, they added 3,000 souls to their number and the great harvest of men began.

The story of Acts 2 depicts the early disciples of Yeshua still engaged in the biblical calendar, keeping the LORD’s appointed times as prescribed by the Torah of Moses. Unlike later Christian tradition which discarded the biblical calendar with its weekly Sabbaths and holy days, the early disciples remained steadfastly Torah observant, even after the resurrection of our Master.

Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
Torah Portion Noach (Noah) (pg 30)
Commentary on Acts 2:1-41

“Chronicles of the Apostles” takes students on a year-long study of the book of Acts with Messianic commentary and Jewish insights into the Epistles.

Follow the lives and adventures of the apostles beyond the book of Acts and into the lost chapter of church history. Study Jewish sources, Church fathers, and Christian history to reveal the untold story of the disciples into the second century.

Promotional description of
Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)

All of them were gathered with one heart.

Ma’asei HaShlichim 2:1

So begins my year-long study of the Apostolic writings from Acts and other sources, which runs in parallel with the annual Jewish Torah reading cycle. I say “parallel” rather than a more closely connected link because, although this study in Torah Club is to be read for the Torah Portion Noach (Noah), they have little, if anything to do with each other. Noach doesn’t speak of Shavuot or the giving of the Torah at all, which are events that occur much later in the Torah narrative. And yet perhaps this is a good thing.

In traditional Christian Bible studies, the New Testament is given overwhelming preference with maybe a slight nod to the Old Testament, but almost certainly not the Torah (the Five Books of Moses). In the Hebrew Roots movement, where I have spent most of my history as a believer worshiping God and studying the Word, the Torah is given the greater preference, even though we are followers and disciples of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah. I think it’s good to try to even the scales, so to speak, and give equal time to all of the different portions of the Bible.

A traditional Jewish Torah reading will present from the Torah and the Prophets. Few synagogues also offer the opportunity to read the Psalm for the week, but each Torah Portion has a corresponding Psalm (Psalm 29 in the case of Noah). First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) has also created a schedule of Gospel readings that map to the readings of the Torah, but the later portions of the Apostolic scriptures are largely ignored, at least formally.

In my “previous life” as a teacher in my former “One Law” (part of Hebrew Roots) congregation, I created an alternating cycle where for one year, Matthew through Acts was read along with the Torah cycle, and the next year, Romans through Revelation was read. So in two years, the congregation would go through the Torah twice, through the traditional readings of the Prophets and the Psalms twice, and through the entire New Testament. Imagine how much you would absorb after a decade of repeatedly reading and hearing read the vast majority of the Bible.

But reading and hearing read is one thing (or two things) and studying is something else. Here, FFOZ and D. Thomas Lancaster offers the Torah Club student (or class, since this material is designed to be used in a small group study) the opportunity to “dig deeper” into the scriptures and to learn how familiar passages in Acts are married back to the Torah, as well as to the Prophets, other portions of the New Testament, and as the study progresses through the annual cycle, to extra-Biblical learned texts as well.

Today, I am learning about the Acts of the early Jewish Apostles, This lesson is about the 3,000 Jews, many probably from the diaspora, who were in Jerusalem for the festival of Shavuot (Pentecost), which is held in the late Spring, and who came to receive the Spirit of the Lord and to come to faith in Jesus (Yeshua), the Jewish Messiah, the Son of the God of Israel, the redeemer of Israel and the world.

The disciples were all “filled with the Holy Spirit.” The Torah uses the same terminology to describe the endowment of God’s Spirit on Joshua, Caleb, Bezalel, and Oholiab. In those examples, the Torah likens a human being to a vessel. God’s spirit can fill a human being like water can fill a jar.

from “Chronicles”
Torah Portion Noah (pg 32)

And what is this supposed to teach me? I’m reminded of something I said just recently:

I’m still not sure of what the process is where I’m supposed to be emptied now and filled later, but in trying to live out that process in writing and in person, I prefer to think of myself as taking “the higher road less traveled”

But in reading Lancaster’s study of Acts 2 and the giving of the Spirit, I’m also reminded of this:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

1 Corinthians 4:7-11 (ESV)

So aren’t we all fragile jars of clay containing an unimaginably valuable treasure of the Holy Spirit of God, through our Master and Messiah Jesus Christ?

Acts 2 describes the giving of the Spirit to thousands of new Jewish disciples of the Messiah on the day of Shavuot. Is it too soon to bring in the idea that we among the nations were also to receive the Spirit?

While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.

Acts 10:44-48 (ESV)

Perhaps I can also extend the lesson and the metaphor of “jars of clay” to include Gentile God-fearers like Cornelius and his transition into what was later known as Christianity through accepting discipleship under Jesus Christ…and also bring Noah into the lesson.

I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

Genesis 9:11-17 (ESV)

As we saw in Acts 10, Peter, the Jewish Apostle, was astonished to discover that the Spirit of God would also come upon the non-Jew who accepted Christ, just as it came upon the Jews during his experience of the events recorded in Acts 2. It had never occurred to him before that such a thing was even possible. What a wonderful God who can also save the children of the nations as well as the Children of Israel.

But earlier in the chapter, we learn some things about Cornelius as he was before becoming a disciple of Jesus:

At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God.

“Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.”

Acts 10:1-2, 22 (ESV)

The Roman Centurion Cornelius and his non-Jewish household were known as “God-fearers,” non-Jews who had come to the realization that the God of Israel was the God, the One and only, the Creator. In that realization, they came to faith, abandoned the pagan idols of Rome, and gave homage to God only. Often, non-Jewish God-fearers would worship in the synagogue on the Sabbath. Many took on some of the other Jewish religious practices of the day, including the daily prayers, and even, to a degree, a Kosher observance (for Peter to break bread in Cornelius’s house, this would have to be true in his case).

But would a Gentile simply walk into a Second Temple era synagogue on Shabbat and inform the Rabbi and other Jews that he intended to worship the Israelite God with them? How was this done and under what status would a Gentile appropriately do such a thing?

Recall Genesis 9 and the covenant God made with Noah and all of his descendents which, by definition, includes all of humanity.

The concept of the Noahide was not formalized, as we understand it today, until the Talmudic era, many centuries after Cornelius and Peter walked the earth. However, the covenant of Noah would have been well-known among the Jews and it’s not beyond reason to believe that a man as devoted to God as Cornelius would have learned or been taught that anyone from among the nations stands before God as subject to the covenant with Noah. Perhaps, though not called or even thought of as “Noahides,” many of the Gentiles who would later receive the Spirit and be baptized by water in Christ’s name, were nevertheless, viewed in such a manner, as God-fearing men and women who had heard the distant words of God to Noah at Ararat, and thus, believed.

To borrow more from Lancaster’s Torah Club lesson (pg 47), maybe we can understand the rite of baptism, especially as it related to the God-fearers, just a little better:

Based on this reading, Lichtenstein argues that the formula (see Acts 2:38) is not a baptismal confession but a statement of purpose. The disciples were to immerse people for the sake of declaring their faith in His messianic identity. Their immersion for His sake signified their entrance into His school of disciples and their allegiance to Him.

The apostles believed that the immersion in His name entailed a mystical union with Him, with His suffering, His death, and His resurrection. (see Romans 6:1-13 and 1 Corinthians 4:7-11)

This interpretation of the meaning of baptismal immersion signifies the crossing of a barrier for the non-Jewish adherents to the God of Israel, from God-fearers and possessors of the covenant of Noah, to disciples and people granted entrance to much greater covenant blessings under Messiah Yeshua.

In the events of Acts 2 and during the festival of Shavuot, every Jew present would be constantly reminded of the giving of the Torah at Sinai, of the awesome voice of God thundering from the smoke and fire, of the top of the mountain, smoldering in unspeakable tongues of flame. When the Spirit of God manifested as “tongues of fire” and rested upon the disciples of Moshiach at Solomon’s Portico, and they spoke in the many tongues of men and the languages of the nations, how much more significant was that Shavuot and all those that followed in their annual procession, to the older and newly made disciples? And when Peter saw that even the Hebrew FireGentiles could receive the Spirit, the greater mysteries of God’s work among all the world, linking Noah, to Moses, to Jesus, unfolded like an infinitely wide cloth, spilling amazing treasures across history, from Creation and into the future that even we now inhabit.

Admittedly, I’ve far exceeded the content of this part of volume 6 of the Torah Club in this “meditation,” (though I’ve included only a tiny fraction of what the over 20 pages of lesson notes – not to mention the accompanying audio CD – for this single teaching have to offer) but once I start learning, the connections to many other sparks of God’s wisdom were inevitable. If you continue to follow me in these studies or to embark on your own through the Torah Club, this will happen to you as well. Believe me, if you encounter the wealth of information in just this single study, it will illustrate to you that what you thought you knew about the events of Acts 2 only scratches the surface of what is actually there.

As humble and empty jars of clay, in seeking God and studying His Word, we desire to become filled with His Spirit and His Wisdom, every day, on each encounter with Him, and across all of our years.

…and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

Luke 24:47 (ESV)