Learnings in Acts 16

In a mini-fit of preparation, I spent 10-15 minutes with Acts material the afternoon before class.

I.  During class, I was glad to find that I’d seen in advance some of the same textual notables as our teacher. . . .

  • Two mentions of Lydia form bookends around a long section in Acts 16.
  • The juxtaposition of the expressions “Holy Spirit” and “Spirit of Jesus” reminded me that aspects of God are not always termed identically.  (Nor do the scriptures explicitly claim threeness per se.)  Still, in Acts it is clearly seen that God’s Spirit is acting despite the new physical absence of God’s Son from earth.
  • The mention of the “vision” sent me looking back at other such epiphanies/theophanies/dreams/visions/visitations in Acts.  The word (which is related to one word for seeing) occurs 11x in Acts, in the course of 6 different events.  It seemed to me that visions help to mark some significant incidents or directions of “missionary” activities in Acts 9, 10, and 16.  Paul’s conversion, Peter’s move toward Gentiles, and Paul’s call to Macedonia all use this terminology.  Acts 7’s speech by Stephen also uses the same word in referring to Moses’ theophanic vision of God in the burning bush.  The appearance of the Spirit in Acts 2 is not phrased the same way and so might not be classed as a theophany by those who classify such things, yet it’s clearly an instance of God’s “showing up.”  It is interesting to tie all these together, noting similarities and differences.

II.  The teacher also brought new matters to my attention that I had not seen or considered. . . .

Geography—no matter how much or little I remember about “Asia Minor” (today’s Turkey) or Greece or Israel, there is usually new insight to be gained from considering locations and physical/topographical aspects of narrative.

Macedonian history—and, particularly, the historical request of the Macedonians for Philip the Great to come to save them from the threat of the warriors from Thrace.  This mention made me wonder if there were a relationship with Paul’s vision:  in both cases, someone from Macedonia is begging for help.  I’d believe it if I heard that Paul learned the history while traveling, and then that the spirit of God worked through a dream in his subconscious—a dream in which the request for spiritual help resembled the request for military help from Philip 350 years prior.

Different “we” theories—famously in Acts, some passages use 1st personal plural pronouns while others use 3rd person for Paul and/or his companions.  The notion that a) the “person” variation is a function of Luke’s stylistic choice as a writer was vaguely familiar, but I had not heard the theory that b) Luke had possibly collected and “re-tooled” fragments of other travel narratives (unrelated to Paul) and presumably had been rather carelessly inconsistent.  Still, the most logical choice seems to be that c) Luke was himself with Paul during some phases and not others—thus the 1st person plural “we” sometimes but not other times.  The class teacher noted that there are no “we” passages until well into the narrative.  (Such insights are “academic” yet quite accessible to all!)  If it were anything other than Luke’s actually having been with Paul at those very times, it seems odd that Luke would have waited until chapter 16 to start changing the style or utilizing other people’s writings.

Observation of Lydia’s household’s conversion and immersion is significant on several fronts.  Primarily, it was suggested that Luke/Acts may be presenting the notion that all the Empire was Caesar’s “household,” and that even houses/households were being penetrated and changed by the good news of Jesus.

In sum: 

  1. I was gratified that I had seen in advance some of the same things the teacher had drawn out to present to the group.
  2. There is always more to learn, deeper insight to gain, a new handle that allows grabbing onto a text better, and I absolutely learned during this class.

Bible study is rewarding, progressive (in that one can attain to more and “better” with some experience and guidance) and perpetually challenging and educational.

B. Casey, 10/22/15

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Two births

I might more aptly have titled this “Two Generations,” but I didn’t want to imply I was talking about parents/children or genealogy, as such.

It isn’t my intent here to toe any party line (or even to rebel against one) around concepts like regeneration or being “born again” or baptism.  My interest in those things is strong (see footnote 1 for links to prior essays, if interested), and some of that may well be predicted here, but . . . this is intended simply to exegete a short John text within the complete document. 

I find that John 1:13 contrasts two senses of being generated or born.  This text appears (although it might not have been originally scripted  in this sequence) pre-Nicodemus, and long before any 16th- or 19th- or 20th/21st-century concepts, e.g., of being “born again.”

Here is the NASB95 rendering of verses 12-13 together:

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And here is my attempt at a word-for-word, interlinear Greek-English rendering of the last part of the same verse:

who   not   out of     bloods
οἳ     οὐκ     ἐξ          αἱμάτων | haimaton — pl., think hematology, the study of blood

not    out of    will              of flesh
οὐδὲ   ἐκ         θελήματος   σαρκὸς | sarkoscf. sarcoma, a flesh-eating tumor

not    out of     will               of man
οὐδὲ   ἐκ        θελήματος     ἀνδρὸς | andros — think androgen, a male sex hormone

but    out of   God’s    generating
ἀλλ᾿   ἐκ        θεοῦ    ἐγεννήθησαν | egennethesan — see below

Although most English translations don’t render these thoughts in a way that shows the parallelism, the connections are there.  The word choices and syntax in this remarkable text are . . . well, remarkable.  So I am remarking!  🙂

The only bona fide verb in 1:13 is the final word.  It comes from γεννάω | gennaoto become the father of, to produce  (BAG Lexicon 1957).  Taking this range of meanings perhaps a step further in English, we might add to generate.  The aorist tense of this verb is not particularly significant; it indicates, relatively simply, that something was done in the past.  The “mood” of the verb is passive, and that aspect seems more significant here:  God is the active agent, and the human is simply the passive  recipient of God’s productive/fatherly action.

The NASB, the NIV, the ESV, and other English translations I glanced at have all opted to insert the idea of being born/birthed at the beginning of this verse.  This word-order inversion isn’t necessarily a bad idea if one is interested in the general import.  It does, however, obscure some of the specific beauty of this text, which contrasts two births/”begettings” and delays mention — with strong effect — of the supernatural one:

  1. the one that arises out of blood, out of flesh, and out of the sexual desire or will² of a male
  2. the one that arises out of God (the last four words in the original)

It appears to me that the idea of being begotten/produced is significant — both in the literary micro-context and in the book-level context of John.  A similar word (see footnote below) is used six times prior to v13.  Furthermore, these notions of being begotten/produced/birthed/generated appear first in v12, with a somewhat related idea in v13, followed by a repetition of the v12 idea in v14:

12 to them He gave the right to become ____,

13 those who have been begotten  by God

14 the word became  flesh

In the above verses, the words for “become” and “begotten” are not the same.  Please see footnote 3 below if interested in more detail here.  At the least, the verbs in vv 12 and 14 are the same, and they flank the important notion of being fathered/begotten by God.  This insight into generative origin may be just as theologically significant as the more-often-quoted, poeticized v14 in its entirety.

Via e-mail, Dr. Paul Pollard has made this observation about the micro-context of v12:  “. . . that for those who have received him (12a), and continue to believe in him (12c), they are entitled to become God’s children (12b).  Verse 13a then shows that becoming the children of God is not by appeal to family connections, or genealogy. . . .”  Exegetically derived points such as this are always, always helpful in our efforts to read the text — and to hear God — more thoroughly.

The word ἀλλ’ | all’  (the antecedent of “but” at the beginning of the last phrase in v13) is considered to set up a strong contrast with what has gone before.  There is another word that could have been used here, if the contrast weren’t so clear-cut, so emphatic.  What the text of John has is something like this (ignore the redundant English, if you please):  ” . . . but instead were begotten by God.”

The two kinds of begettings/births are distinct.  It is my hope that this little insight about God’s action in spiritual birth has brought someone closer to this great Father.  It has done that for me when I needed it today — to the point that I regret that I now need to do some work that I get paid to do.

Brian (1/9/15)


¹ Here are three links that refer to, and/or attempt to explicate, portions of the interaction between Jesus and Nicodemus:

That Christianese wasn’t original with John

Rebirth, as Jesus taught it

The misread part of John 3

² Here, some might choose the word “lust” for “will” or “desire” — but presumably not in a negative sense.  Immediately prior, “flesh” appears to be used without the later, negative Docetist or Pauline connotation — e.g., in Romans 7 and 8, where it is contrasted with the πνεῦμα | pneuma (spirit) nature.  It is significant that, in the next verse, Jesus is said to have become (ἐγένετο | egeneto)  flesh.  Neither flesh nor a man’s will appears to be cast negatively here.

³ The ice is getting thin, and my ear for similar sounds and potential Greek etymological connections has gotten me in trouble before, but the ideas of the ginomai and gennao word families seem related.  In other words, to become (a being verb) seems possibly connected to the original begetting, which endowed them with the right to become/be in the first place.  I am becoming damp here and may soon be “all wet” — and not just for mixing English ice/water metaphors.  🙂  The abridged Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the NT gives this gloss for ginomai (vv 12 and 14):  “to be born” (adding very little other than the mention of John 8:58 — ” . . . before Abraham was born, I am“), where both the contrast and connection again appear).  Kittel’s gloss for gennao (v13) is “to bear, beget.”  Moreover, in Warren Trenchard’s Complete Vocabulary Guide to the Greek New Testament, these two words are shown in the same “cognate word group.”  Essentially, I would suggest that, though the two verbs may be as distinct as the two births I’m attempting to delineate, the verb-concepts are at least syntactically related in John.

Johannine insights #4 — senses and faith

If you’re ready for a deep, sustained study of a New Testament text, may I suggest John?  And may I suggest printing the words below for reference as you work through the first twelve chapters?  Or, just put this in your “gospels” or “John” or “faith” or “Jesus” file for later reference.  Or maybe buy Robert Kysar’s and/or Raymond Brown’s books!  (Here is a blogger’s recommendation of Kysar’s book.)

I have gained a caboodle of insights into John’s gospel through readings in Raymond Brown’s commentary work in the Anchor Bible series.  Additional insights via Robert Kysar, John: The Maverick Gospel have proven helpful, as well as observations made in live classes by Dr. Paul Pollard and Dr. Tom Alexander.

Kysar may or may not be an ethnically Jewish name, but I suspect he has some personal, historical reasons for going over the top in expressing antitheses to anti-Semitism in John.  (I tend to pass over material that seems to be reading 20th- and 21st-century concerns into a 1st-century gospel narrative.  Worry about anti-Semitism might be more of a publisher’s political or economic concern.  Anti-Semitism is a thing of the 19th and 20th centuries, really.)  However, on the upside . . . I’d like to share worthwhile excerpts from Kysar’s book on the topics of the development of faith as connected withseeing and hearing.

~ ~ ~

In even a cursory reading of John’s gospel, one perceives a great deal of material about “the Jews” and various groups and individuals who develop, or don’t develop, faith.  In connection with faith development, John pays special attention to a seemingly intentional group of miraculous signs.  Below is Kysar on signs, faith and believing, seeing, and hearing.

The signs (semeion) are works of God, wonders, or expressions of the power of God that produce faith. This is true of each of the seven or eight major signs performed by Christ in the gospel.

[John’s] is a startling use of the term [semeion.]  When [the synoptic] gospels employed the term in relationship to Jesus’ marvelous acts, it is most often given a negative connotation. . . . The interest in seeing a sign as a basis for faith is condemned as an expression of distrust and suspicion.  Strange, then, that [John] uses it in a positive way.

[In John,] the signs performed by Jesus seem to have an ambiguous role in relation to believing in the revelation offered by Christ.

    1. Changing the water into wine (ch 2)
    2. Healing the nobleman’s son (ch 4)
    3. Healing the man who had been crippled for 30 years (ch 5)
    4. Feeding a multitude (ch 6)
    5. Walking on the water and the miraculous landing (ch 6)
    6. Healing of the man born blind (ch 9)
    7. Raising of Lazarus (ch 11)
    8. Catching a miraculous number of fish (ch 21)

These incidents are told in such a way as to suggest that they lead to faith. . . .  The implication is that these signs are offered as evidence that Jesus really is the
Messiah.

However, the evangelist seems to draw a line between believing in Jesus for the sake of his wondrous acts and “seeing signs.” . . . To follow Jesus simply for the sake of his gifts or benefits is not enough. . . . To “see the sign” involved something more than benefiting from this person who can supply your needs.

And what then is meant by “seeing signs”? . . . It seems that seeing wonderful acts of Jesus is more than a visual perception of what Jesus does or the experience of benefiting from those acts.  It is an insight into the identity of the performer of the sign. . . .

. . .

In [some] cases, the signs are regarded as a positive means of provoking faith in people.  Elsewhere the fourth gospel has much more serious reservations about the effectiveness of signs in producing genuine faith.  They seem powerless to arouse faith in some who experienced them. . . . It pictures Jesus speaking in such a way as to cast doubt on the whole faith grounded in the experience of the signs. Read once again the healing of the son of the officer in royal service (4:48-53). Jesus did the healing only after complaining about belief based on signs and wonderful acts. Is first 48 of the story a mild rebuke . . .? Or is it a repudiation of all signs-based faith? Is Jesus saying that faith founded upon wondrous acts has no value at all? Or . . . are we to infer from these words that faith based on signs is inferior . . .?

. . .

The Greek words for seeing are used in the fourth gospel interchangeably for a sensory perception and a faith perception. Examples of the difference between these two are 1:47 and 14:8. . . .  (Two different words are used in these verses. -bc)

John has a profound understanding of the relationship between these two types of perception. . . .

[John’s] understanding of how experience lends itself to faith is also reflected in other ways.  The obviously metaphorical use of “see” in 9:39 makes sense now.  Surely, Jesus’ mission is to accomplish some healing — the bestowal of physical capacities for sight and hearing — but [John] means something more.  Jesus grants the gift of perceiving the truth about life and existence. . . .

Much the same thing is true when we turn to [John’s] use of the words meaning “to hear” or “to listen. . . .”

Hearing may be a purely sensory act, as in 6:60, where the words of Jesus are heard but there is no real perception of their meaning.  It may also be the experience from which faith is born (5:24).  In the latter case, a discernment of Jesus’ true identity begins with normal hearing but goes beyond it.

For additional posts on John’s gospel, click here.