I have always viewed the Apostle Paul one of the more controversial figures of Early Christian History. It isn’t so much his origins – a Jewish man who was born with the privilege of Roman citizenship, Saul then persecuted Christians as traitors of Rome before he, himself, converted upon the Road to Damascus.
It isn’t his religious zeal and his rigorous beliefs, though sometimes they can make the casual reader feel lacking in her own faith. It isn’t his language, his words, his imagery—in fact, some of the most beautiful passages in the Bible can be traced back to Paul or his followers. My favorite professor, in fact, would start a lecture on a passage from Paul, and usually get hung up on one word or phrase, and we, his students, were treated to a whirlwind of passion and love that our prof felt toward the language and that Paul, the writer, felt toward Jesus.
I’ve never experienced anything quite like it, and some days I’m afraid I never will again: when language and intent and faith are in near perfect harmony.
However, it is not that, either.
The simple fact is this: Paul spends most of his time correcting people. The key to understanding Paul is to figure out what he’s correcting (as we have none of the original letters sent to him, only what Paul responds). Just that starting off point can be a headache that just never gives up. Paul, his world, his worries are a puzzle, and we only have one half of each puzzle.
A simple sermon, even if I were to stay in the pulpit for a full hour, would most likely confuse everyone involved instead of truly get to what Paul is trying to say. To be entirely honest, to do Paul correctly—we’d need a dedicated Bible Study, and the pandemic has made that rather unlikely, at least at the moment.
Thus, we have a situation where when I have a lectionary and can pick and choose from three or four separate readings (both for my weekly mini sermon and my youtube message), I usually choose not to pick Paul.
However, today is strangely a day when I go against my own “rule of thumb.” Today, I am going to pick Paul. Today I pick six verses from the Book of Acts, but I wish to warn you first. We will be looking at a very specific aspect of Paul’s ministry and, really, just using Paul as a starting off point to talk about the various Christians and believers at the time Paul lived. And, really, that will really just be a point in my greater message of Christian love and fellowship.
So, we begin with Paul in the Book of Acts, but shall soon leave him behind…
Paul died in AD 67 at the latest, and the Temple in Jerusalem did not fall until AD 70 … and the Gospel of Matthew, the earliest gospel, was written shortly after that. Paul’s writings are, therefore, some of the earliest that we have regarding the Jewish sect that would become a global phenomenon.
Where do We Begin?
The Book of Acts is paired with the Gospel of Luke as they were certainly written by the same person or by the same school of thought. They have similar writing styles, similar themes, and they each have a dedication to someone named (or called) Theophilus. Many scholars believe they were intended as a unified book.
Paul at this point is no longer named “Saul,” he is no longer hunting Christians, but Paul himself is hunted for being Christian. He is traveling in and around the Mediterranean, meeting Christians, and serving as a sort of “religious advisor.”
We must remember, at this time Christianity was a fledgling religion. It was arguably not even a fully formed religion separate from Judaism. It was figuring itself out. Jesus had been crucified several decades previously, but his followers spread the good news wherever they went throughout the greater Empire. However, they didn’t quite have a unified message. The Gospels hadn’t even been written, so all people had were verbal accounts.
If you know anything about “word of mouth,” you know it can change quickly and spread and not be the same story that was originally told. It is changeable, mutable, and not always reliable.
- Did Jesus really die or did he escape somehow?
- What did Jesus mean by the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the wine? Did Jesus mean actual human flesh and actual blood, or something else?
- Was he coming again or was that wishful thinking? Had he come again and everyone missed it?
- Were reports of Jesus being alive mean 1) he never died, 2) he rose again, or 3) people were suffering from mass grief and having visions of the dead?
- What did it mean to “believe” in Jesus?
- What was a Christian? Was a follower someone who thought Jesus a prophet? A king? The Messiah?
- Did you have to convert to Judaism to become a Christian?
These questions are just examples of the multitudes of confusions occurring among small congregations, spread out throughout the known world.
We know the answers—now—two thousand years later… but then? There was no absolute authority. There wasn’t a “pope” to decide these things. There wasn’t a written account, at least not a standard one. And, within a couple decades, there would be at least a dozen gospels—and the number would just grow.
Paul stepped into that role as “an authority” whenever he could, correcting misunderstandings, advising congregations, serving as a testament to Jesus and true Conversion. He’d never met Jesus, if you recall, except in a vision when he was on the Road to Damascus.
My cat’s full name is ‘Archdeacon Theophilus Grantly,’ after a character in a book whose father’s favorite gospel was Luke. I just call my cat ‘Archdeacon,’ though, or ‘Dickie,’ if I need to call him quickly.
Fun Fact #2:
‘Theophilus’ was most likely a title and means ‘friend of God’ in Greek.
The Question that Came Before Paul
Out of the many, many questions that Paul wrote about in his letters of epistles, the question of baptism was one of the early ones that plagued the Christian community. In Acts 19, we have the account of “Luke,” the writer, and what he reports Paul said and did.
However, judging by Paul’s actions and his theology in these verses, we can (excuse the pun) take it as “gospel.”
Here we have Paul in Ephesus, now in modern day Turkey, and he comes across some … believers. The word used, specifically, is “disciple,” which means “student.” However, these students aren’t necessarily students of Jesus Christ, or not as we would recognize them. They are disciples of his cousin, the prophet called “John the Baptizer” (at least at first glance).
After a brief “faith test,” Paul discerns the problem, or at least, it’s a problem for Paul.
What is Baptism?
John the Baptist, in the Gospels, went about baptizing Jewish men and women in water, to cleanse them of their sins (which was astonishing and unnecessary and shameful).
(If you remember from a Sermon I gave back in February, only Gentiles [or non Jews] were baptized because they were unclean. Jews followed the 613 laws of God and, therefore, were not unclean and, therefore, to baptize them and suggest their uncleanliness was blasphemous.)
It makes sense that these disciples or students of truth would be going about baptizing themselves and other believers in water. They weren’t hereditary Jews. They were Gentiles. They were unclean. Baptism, in a purely Jewish context, would make sense.
What was Baptism to Paul?
Paul, however, understood the complexity of the situation.
Yes, these disciples were Gentiles. They were, in fact, Ephesians, or Greeks.
However, they wished to be baptized as John the Baptist had baptized. They wished to be baptized into John the Baptist’s belief system. They wished the baptism he had given Jesus of Nazareth, specifically. This would be a full and true baptism, not the type Gentiles were given to become Jews.
To receive a full baptism that, these disciples needed to be baptized not only in water but the Holy Spirit (hence the original “faith question” Paul gives them instead of the customary greetings). When baptized in water and fire, these disciples would become true followers of Christ—true “little Christs”—true Christians.
A Note on the Followers of John the Baptist
Although we, as Christians, know that John the Baptist came to prepare the way for someone greater (Matthew 3:11-12). This was the predominant belief that “won out” two thousand or so years ago, but it wasn’t the only belief at the time. It isn’t the only belief now.
At the time after Jesus’s death and for centuries afterward, there were those who believed that John the Baptist was the Messiah. To them, Jesus was an imposter and a false Messiah, if Jesus of Nazareth was given consideration at all.
The Madaeans (or Sabaeans in the Qu’ran) believe that John the Baptist is the true Messiah. According to a 2007 census, there were over five thousand practicing Madaeans in Iraq in 2007. This does not include other believers in neighboring countries.
This belief shouldn’t just be discounted as a heresy in the Early Church and at the time of Muhammad (who died in AD 632) and early Islam. It is an active religion in the modern Middle East with its own unique history and writings.
The reason I chose this passage (Acts 19:1-7) is because I want to point out that Christianity, at its infancy, was highly fractured, with differing practices and differing beliefs. Disagreements between followers did not crop up suddenly in 1517 when a monk named Martin Luther nailed his 99 Theses to the door of a church on All Hallows Eve. People have never agreed. The Great Schism between the Western Church (Roman Catholicism) and the Eastern Church (Greek and Russian Orthodoxy) was in 1054.
Christians have always been discussing the finer points (and the larger ones). Sometimes we shout, get angry, split up permanently and call ourselves by different names.
But other times we come together and join hands (sometimes only spiritually) and realize that we are all God’s children.
We, as a world, have been walking a long and winding road for the better part of a year—and I pray to God (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) that we will soon be able to worship together again. I pray we will be able to see each other smiling (or crying) without being separated through a computer screen or by a windowpane. I pray that you might be able to hug close the person you have been missing most in all this.
But, however isolated we feel, however alone, however despondent—please remember that we are part of a global community of faith, that can claim over 2.4 billion Christians across the planet. We are never alone. God is with us, moving among us, giving us hope even if we don’t quite realize that’s what’s happening.
The little things don’t matter—whether we raise our hands and scream God’s name or whether we bow our heads calmly, quietly, in our pew—we are all Christians, and beyond that we are all God’s children—and we are in this together.
And, in the meantime, I promise to send you a mini sermon once a week, just to remind you that you will never be a lone, even in the darkest of times.
Stay safe. Stay strong. And remember to pray, as God will never stop listening.