Scripture Reading: Acts 21-23, 27-28; Ephesians 1-6; 2 Timothy 1-4
Significant Events in The Story
Paul arrested in Jerusalem – Acts 21
Paul appeals to the emperor and is sent to Rome – Acts 25
Paul is shipwrecked on the way to Rome – Acts 27
Paul arrives in Rome – Acts 28
Persecution and suffering
Throughout this week’s readings, we see Paul suffering because of his faithfulness to his calling. The obvious example is, of course, his arrest in Jerusalem based on the accusation that he was teaching against the Jewish people, their law, and the Temple. In addition, he was accused of defiling the Temple by bringing Greeks beyond the court of the Gentiles.
When we turn to Ephesians and 2 Timothy, there are references to those who abandoned Paul or betrayed his trust. It seems that the suffering that Paul faced was not just institutional persecution but personal suffering of lost friendships and relationships that were not dependable.
Throughout all of these events, though, we see that Paul remains faithful to his mission and purpose of preacher and pastor. He continues to share the news of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, he continues to write to churches and individuals to encourage them. Even in the face of a shipwreck, Paul continues to focus on caring for others, in this case, his shipmates.
Paul’s story is an encouraging word for all disciples of Christ, but especially for those who are considering a call to ministry or who have answered a call to ministry. Jesus said that those who would follow him would need to “take up a cross”. There is suffering and hardship when one devotes their life to Christ and His kingdom. Every year brings new stories and statistics of the number of ministers who leave or are forced out of ministry citing conflict, burnout, and/or betrayal of trust. Paul’s life and letters serve not only as a reality check to these hardships, but also as an encouragement to remain faithful and to understand one’s identity not as based on the acceptance of others but in Christ’s continued redeeming work in creation.
The letters to the Ephesians and Timothy focus primarily on issues of how to live as the community of the church. Some of the issues touched on these letters have been, in my opinion, seriously misunderstood (the relationship of husbands and wives in Ephesians 5, for example). In the information below, I will try to address some of these issues. However, what should be noted and appreciated is that both letters put forward a view that faith is not a private, personal matter but a matter that should affect how we act and live in relationship with others.
James and the elders – Acts 21:18
James, the brother of Jesus, was the leader of the Jerusalem church, along with those who were noted as “elders”, a common term within Jewish communities.
Four men under a vow – Acts 21:23
This was possibly a reference to a nazirite vow, a sign of one’s complete devotion and dedication to God. This vow usually involved shaving one’s head to indicate that they were under a vow. The hope is that if Paul joins these four men in their vow, it will communicate to the Jews in Jerusalem that he is not teaching against the Jewish law or Jewish people.
A letter about the Gentiles who have become believers – Acts 21:25
This is a reference to the Jerusalem Council’s decision described in Acts 15. A letter was sent to other churches describing their decision.
The Way – Acts 22:4
The Way was a term used to refer to the Christian community.
Paul’s claim of Roman citizenship – Acts 22:25
Interestingly, nowhere in his letters does Paul identify himself as a Roman citizen. Yet, he argues here that he (birth) is more a Roman citizen than the Roman tribune (bought citizenship) who has ordered him scourged. We are given no details to the circumstances of Paul’s family and how he could claim Roman citizenship. By Roman law, a Roman citizen who had not been convicted of a crime, could not be tortured.
The son of Paul’s sister – Acts 23:16
This is the only biblical reference to any other members of Paul’s family.
When it was decided that we were to sail for Italy – Acts 27:1
Paul was kept imprisoned in Caesarea for over two years under the governorships of Felix and Festus. When Festus arrived as the new governor, the chief priests in Jerusalem requested that Paul be transferred back to Jerusalem to stand trial in their court. Paul, instead, requested a trial in a Roman court under Roman law, his right as a Roman citizen. This is why Paul is being transferred to Rome.
The church in Ephesus was a congregation that Paul spent a great deal of time with (Acts 19), which makes the very formal character of this letter very unusual. It is lacking of many of the personal notes that we see in other of Paul’s letters. Some cite the fact that early manuscripts of this letter lack the address “in Ephesus” in Ephesians 1:1 as evidence that this may have been written more as a sermon to be circulated among a series of churches as opposed to a letter to a specific church. The letter also seems to draw very closely on the letter to the Colossians (compare Ephesians 4:17-6:9 to Colossians 3:1-25). For this reason (as well as issues of style and theological emphasis), there are many interpreters who question whether Ephesians was actually written by Paul, perhaps instead written by one of his closest disciples after Paul’s death.
The letter of 2 Timothy is traditionally understood as a personal letter to Paul’s disciple and associate in ministry and possibly the last of Paul’s letters. Acts 16:1 tells us that Timothy was the son of a Greek father and Jewish mother. His mother, at least, became a Christian. Acts also tells us that Timothy regularly accompanied Paul on his missionary journeys. 2 Timothy belongs to the group of writings known as the “Pastoral Letters” ( 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus). The authorship of these letters are highly debated, in part because some believe they indicate a level of structure in the church that was not known during Paul’s time. This point is debated though, and the highly personal tone of 2 Timothy has caused many to argue that it, perhaps to the exclusion of the other 2 Pastoral letters, is indeed authored by Paul.
Some Questions That Might Come Up
Is Paul arguing for women as “second-class” citizens who are to do whatever their husbands say?
Ephesians 5:22-33 has long been a passage that generates a lot of discussion, anger, and misunderstanding. What is presented here is not intended as a all-encompassing discussion of the text. However, I do want to present some thoughts regarding what is being said, and not said, in these verses. In the comments that follow, I will denote Paul as the author since the letter is attributed to Paul, though one should keep in mind earlier comments that Pauline authorship of this letter is highly questionable.
First off, though much attention is paid to Ephesians 5:22-33, this passage is part of a larger unit that begins at Ephesians 5:21 and runs through Ephesians 6:9. This passage reflects a common theme of philosophers and teachers of the time in addressing the issue of rules of proper conduct within the household. Typically, such instructions would address husband and wife, parent and child, and master and slave, as we see here in Ephesians. Any teaching dealing especially with issues of morality and ethics would seek to define the proper ordering of a household. It should also be noted that the author is assuming social standards and norms without offering any judgment on those norms. For example, the letter assumes the existence of slaves because of the existence of a slavery system of that day. The letter does not condemn slavery; however, it would also be unfair to say that the mention of slavery here is an endorsement of it. The letter is simply addressing household relationships as they existed at the time. The author was not necessarily setting out to write down a “eternal word”; instead, Paul was dealing with the norms of his day.
This entire teaching of the ordering of a proper household must be set within the context of Ephesians 5:21 – “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The verses that follow deal with expressions of applications of this teaching within the household. Thus, it would be incorrect to read these words as only teaching the submission of the wife to the husband when, in fact, all Christians – male and female, young and old, free and slave – are being told to be subject to one another. This is, in part, why the instructions to the husband are much lengthier than the instructions to the wife. Cultural norms were in place that established the family as a patriarchal body under the authority and rule of the father. However, the husband and father of a house would need much more intentional teaching on what it would mean to “be subject to” his spouse.
Several incidents in Acts (Acts 10:1, 16:34) indicate that it was not unusual for a whole family to convert to Christianity if the father converted. We may see in this passage, especially 5:23, such an understanding, indicating that the wife had come to Christianity because of the conversion of the husband, and not necessarily through personal experience (as in the case of Timothy’s mother, who seems to have come to Christianity apart from her husband). Therefore, Paul may be charging the husband with the responsibility of not only teaching Christianity to his wife but modeling Christ in word and deed so that his wife (and other family) may come to a true assent to faith and not just the acceptance of the father’s decision.
Is Paul reinforcing the accepted social mores of the time? Yes and no. In many ways, especially in relation to slavery but perhaps also in terms of marriage, we would love to hear Paul sound the strong message of freedom that we hear in Galatians. It is true that, in part, what is described in Ephesians would not look very different than the typical “ideal” home of the day. In part, perhaps this is to prevent anyone from making the case that Christianity sought to undermine society by destroying the family system. In some cases, the Christian proclamation of freedom had brought such accusations as well as other challenges. For example, the often quoted teaching from 1 Corinthians 14:34 – “women should be silent in the churches” – may have less to do with the subjugation of women and more with keeping order in worship. Based on the following verses, it seems that the church was having problems with women asking their husbands questions about what was taking place in worship. The fact that they are sitting with their husbands is noteworthy, as women and men were kept separate in the Temple as well as other places of worship. The instruction to keep silent appears to be a teaching to hold their questions until they are home so as not to distract from worship. Though the Ephesians passage may reinforce some social norms of the time, it does reframe these norms in the context of the Christian message. In doing so, these norms are challenged and changed. For example, the understanding of the father as the head of the household is put forward not as an issue of authority but as an opportunity and a responsibility of the father to model the love of Christ to his wife and children so that they are able to grow in their faith. Husbands are told again and again to love their wives, and love is a resounding theme throughout the letter as an act expected of all Christians.
We also have to keep this passage in context with Paul’s other teachings on marriage, most especially 1 Corinthians 7:1-7. There Paul argues that it is actually better not to be married. However, because of a concern for individual “lack of self-control” and a concern for instances of sexual immorality, Paul argues that “each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” He goes on to argue that neither the husband or the wife have the authority over their own bodies, but their spouse does. He also recognizes marriage not only as physical devotion but spiritual devotion. The picture Paul paints of marriage here is not a relationship where the wife is nothing but silent and obedient to the husband’s every whim. Instead, it is a picture of true partnership and mutual submission. In Galatians, Paul would claim that Christ has undermined any understanding of superiority of class or gender – “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:27-29). Christian life is not about any one person claiming authority over another; it is about all disciples living under the authority of Christ and supporting one another in living out His promise.